New community group works to register voter find candidates to unseat officials who they say unfairly fired town’s first black police chief
TAYA GRAHAM, CORRESPONDENT, TRNN: It’s been nearly four weeks since the small town of Pocomoke City on Maryland’s Eastern shore lost its first black police chief. KELVIN SEWELL: I love being the chief of police here. The people here, I’m respected and I respect them. We had a good relationship. GRAHAM: A man who reduced crime to record lows with community-oriented policing. SEWELL: My goal was to have the officers get out of the cars and walk foot patrol. GRAHAM: But was terminated for reasons still unknown to them. RESIDENT: I want him to be reinstated, and I want them to tell us why they took him out. GRAHAM: Since then the city’s black residents have confronted city officials and asked tough questions. REV. 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. GRAHAM: And even formed a new group to fight for Chief Kelvin Sewell’s return called Citizens for Better Pocomoke. But despite the collective efforts, the mayor and the city council have refused to answer their simple question: why? STEPHEN JANIS, TRNN: You don’t want to talk about [inaud.] ask you. MAYOR BRUCE MORRISON: No, I will not. I will not talk about it. JANIS: Why can’t you talk about it? MORRISON: No. I will not talk about it. JANIS: Okay. GRAHAM: Or discuss the allegations that Sewell was removed because he refused to fire two black officers who filed discrimination complaints against a Somerset County drug task force. MORRISON: It’s a personnel issue that I’m not–as anybody knows, the laws of the state of Maryland and probably most every state that the, this is a personnel issue and this is all it is, is a personnel issue. And that’s all I will say about it. GRAHAM: The process of uncovering what happened behind closed doors in city hall has dragged on. But the conscience of the community has awoken. And is now focused on action. The mayor says the citizens of Pocomoke stand behind him and the city council. But supporters of Chief Kelvin Sewell disagree. They have begun to organize and they say the mayor will face consequences in the next election. It’s the belief among the city’s black residents that in order to address the firing of Sewell and past injustices, the electorate of the city must make their voices heard at the polls. RESIDENT: This experience that we are going through at this present time, the chief, he was valuable. See how valuable he’s been to the community. The people see that. And now they see how important I believe, I really truly believe, that people see the importance of supporting, getting local candidates to run and getting out the vote. Because you see what happened. GRAHAM: And one of the battlegrounds for this fight will more than likely be here in what’s known as District Four. It’s a predominantly black community that has languished. In this district is the focus of a Justice Department voting rights investigation after the mayor and city council appointed a white resident to represent the majority black district without notifying the community. To dig deeper into what happened and its implications for the town we talked to Sheila Palmer, who tried to enter the election as a write-in candidate. She decided to pursue the office after the incumbent dropped out, but was told by city officials that she could not. GRAHAM: I was told that when you went to hand in your write-in application that you were turned away. SHEILA PALMER: Yes I was. GRAHAM: What did the City Clerk say to you? PALMER: She just said that they didn’t do write-ins for the city election. JANIS: Is that true? PALMER: In their–I guess in their [law], I guess. GRAHAM: The ACLU called the action illegal and urged city officials not to swear in Berlin, Maryland police officer Brian Hirshman as city councilman. JANIS: So are they being represented? I mean, they [didn’t] get a chance to vote, did they? PALMER: No, they really didn’t. Their voting right was really denied because of, they were told I guess that they didn’t have to go and vote. But you never take away anyone’s voting privileges no matter what election there is, because that’s their equal right to vote. GRAHAM: Sheila Nelson, who accompanied Palmer, said she was stunned by the attitude of Pocomoke City officials. SHEILA NELSON: This is a minority jurisdiction area. And we just felt like we had been robbed of not having the opportunity to be able to select someone, or someone to decide that they wanted to run as councilman or councilwoman. GRAHAM: And also concerned that the outcome in part helped facilitate Chief Sewell’s removal. NELSON: And we need a voice for our race, bottom line. GRAHAM: Which is why she too is part of a movement which has been building around Sewell’s firing, but now has even broader goals. SPEAKER: Y’all need to be in numbers. When you hear these statistics, when you hear these things that we’re sharing with you, we need to show up in numbers. GRAHAM: Goals embodied in the charter of Citizens for Better Pocomoke, which is now turning its attention towards consequences, meaning an election. SPEAKER: You go to the polls anyway. You go to the polls and you make the attempt. Make them deny you. GRAHAM: This week the group met to discuss voter turnout, and registration, and how to make their voices heard at the polls next year and beyond. SPEAKER: So what you have to do is go into your neighborhoods, your churches, into whatever group you have. Whether it’s coworkers or you’re involved with whatever civic group, and ask people. Just don’t hesitate to ask them. Hey, are you registered? Are you registered? GRAHAM: An effort that they hope may bring some balance to a city that appears divided along racial lines. Their hope: that the small, tight-knit town on the Eastern shore can begin to heal itself through a newfound sense of equality. For full disclosure, Steven Janis wrote a book on policing with Kelvin Sewell. This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Pocomoke City.