Probe will include election irregularities and possible misuse of federal grants by Pocomoke city officials
SPEAKER: If you want us to press forward, you tell us to press forward. That’s what we’re going to do. TAYA GRAHAM, TRNN: We told you about the controversial firing of Pocomoke City police chief Kelvin Sewell last week. How the popular top cop who effectively implemented community policing in the small, Eastern shore town had been fired amid allegations of racism. DARLENE SCHOOLVILLE, RESIDENT: If the mayor is doing things that’s illegal, we don’t need nobody doing anything illegal. We need everybody that’s positive for Pocomoke. GRAHAM: But from this conflict something new has emerged. Something beyond politics, which prompted us to return. A renewed sense of commitment from the town’s black community to organize and fight back. REVEREND RONNIE WHITE, NEW MACEDONIA BAPTIST CHURCH: We were told that the mayor and the city council had the power to fire the chief of police. After going through the charter, we found out that the mayor doesn’t even have any authority to fire the chief of police. And I don’t think I can be a citizen in a city with a lying mayor. GRAHAM: This sense of communal purpose was evident Tuesday night, as supporters gathered at New Macedonia Baptist Church. The same house of worship where Chief Sewell ordered his officers to park their cars and implement a community policing strategy that led to a historic drop in crimes. VANESSA JONES, RESIDENT: I think what has motivated the community so much is just in the short time that Chief Sewell has been terminated we have already seem crime start to rise. We want our town back. GRAHAM: At the meeting residents formed Citizens for a Better Pocomoke, a new group to continue fighting for Sewell’s reinstatement. They also started a petition asking the mayor, Bruce Morrison, to resign. WHITE: I talked to the mayor. And I asked the mayor. I said, Mr. Mayor, what charges do you have against the chief of police? This was his response. Rev. White, I have no charges against the chief of police. He just would not quit when we asked him to quit. That’s what he told me. GRAHAM: And the meeting took on added significance when officials from the United States Department of Justice appeared, briefing them on the details of a wide-ranging investigation of Sewell’s dismissal, the possible misuse of federal grant monies by city officials, as well as the unilateral appointment of a white councilman to represent a majority black district without public input. CHARLES PHILLIPS, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE: There are already processes in the works in terms of looking at the chief’s termination, and looking at some of the other issues that–the voting irregularities that were mentioned earlier. TROY WILLIAMS, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE: Listening to the issues that have come from you all tonight, I think it’s important that we also make you aware of the civil rights [division], the civil rights team at the Department of Justice. GRAHAM: But even as scrutiny focused more on the city, the harsh reality of how policing deals with black communities that speak up was front and center. It was here in this neighborhood where Sewell walked the streets, where a special task force executed a raid just as Sewell supporters prepared to confront the mayor and city council. Eighteen people were arrested using the aggressive tactics typically applied to black communities. Although most of the charges have since been dropped, people are asking the question, why? That’s because the unit which conducted the raid, the Worcester County Criminal Enforcement team, is the same squad accused of discriminating against the officers at the heart of the controversy. We talked to retired schoolteacher Miriam Cane, whose home was raided and her son arrested. She declined to comment on the case. MIRIAM J. CANE, RESIDENT: Well, I understand that people are saying that. But I really would not like to comment on that under the advice of my lawyer. GRAHAM: But she did say that the mayor needs to come clean on why Sewell was fired. CANE: If the mayor knows exactly why the chief was fired, he needs to let the community know that. If it was the chief’s fault we need to know that. Right now we do not see anything that the chief has done to be fired for. So if he cannot come up with it then I don’t think we need him as a mayor. GRAHAM: For now the residents who want him reinstated are hoping that the community’s resolve, along with the Justice Department, will deliver answers. WILLIAM SCHOOLVILLE, RESIDENT: We just want him back. And I know it’s going to take the whole community to get him back. But we’re fighting for it. GRAHAM: An investigation they say now is not just about a chief, but preserving the soul of the town. WHITE: We’re going to get Chief and justice, because we’re not going to stop until we get Sewell and justice. [Inaud.] I’m committed. I’m committed to this. GRAHAM: For full disclosure Stephen Janis, contributed to the report, wrote a book with Chief Kelvin Sewell. This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Pocomoke City.