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A Pocomoke city council meeting turns tumultuous as residents demand answers about the firing of the city’s first black police

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TAYA GRAHAM, TRNN: This is Taya Graham reporting for the Real News Network in Pocomoke City. I’m here inside City Hall in Pocomoke City, Maryland, waiting for the supporters of Mayor Bruce Morrison and former Police Chief Kelvin Sewell to square off. It began with apologies and reconciliation. SPEAKER: We want to see this work. MAYOR BRUCE MORRISON: I’m willing, as a mayor, to work with you. I [inaud.] all the people that’s been coming. GRAHAM: The supporters of Pocomoke City’s first black police chief, Kelvin Sewell, seeking to heal the racial wounds that had opened since Sewell’s firing. MORRISON: I don’t look at color. And I do not appreciate somebody saying I don’t. I don’t. I love every person in this room, I love every individual. But I am not a racist. GRAHAM: The mayor even apologized to the media, who were kicked out of City Hall a month ago when the divisions between the black and white residents of this small Eastern shore town first erupted after Sewell was let go without explanation. MORRISON: The taxpayers of Pocomoke wanted to speak that night. I thought, they have more right to be in this room than the news media. I asked the news media to leave. I got in trouble. I’m in trouble right now with the attorney general’s [office]. GRAHAM: But as the meeting progressed, tensions mounted as the issue of whether or not Chief Sewell would return could not be resolved. SPEAKER: He was terminated doing a job that we see as being substantially well. And we can’t find anything else out because of the attorneys for why this happened. GRAHAM: Supporters of the chief withdrew the petition for the mayor to resign. SPEAKER: We are Citizens for Better Pocomoke. We will not present our petition for the removal of the mayor of Pocomoke City. GRAHAM: But asked that Sewell be reinstated. SPEAKER: Would you work with us, we’re asking the question of you, would you work with us, with a majority of the citizenship in fulfilling our request to reinstate Kelvin D. Sewell as chief of police of Pocomoke City? GRAHAM: Mayor Bruce Morrison responded that Sewell’s return was unlikely. MORRISON: But as mayor of Pocomoke City I feel that the town has been damaged. There’s too much litigations out there. Everything has been said, everything’s been done. My, this is only my opinion, I just don’t feel that right now we can do that. [Hiring] Chief Sewell back. I don’t see that happening. GRAHAM: And when the public finally weighed in, the underlying tensions that have engulfed the town’s African-American community boiled over. SPEAKER: Like I said, if he’s done something underneath the covers or something, that’s his business. That is his business. And I don’t think he’s done that either. But what I’m saying is all we’ve seen from this man has been nothing but good. GRAHAM: The conflict was in part driven by the question that still lingers and still remains unanswered: why Sewell was fired. SPEAKER: We have not really gotten an answer to this one question. Was Chief Sewell incompetent in some way? Why was he fired? We keep getting a personnel issue, but that’s not satisfying the people. We have a right, I feel, to know the reason the man was fired. GRAHAM: But when state officials refused to elaborate, Connie Parks, the mother of Pocomoke police Detective Franklin Savage, came forward. SPEAKER: I’m going to tell you. I’m going to tell you where it all came from. GRAHAM: Det. Savage is one of the officers Sewell’s lawyers says he refused to fire after they filed discrimination complaints at the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office. SPEAKER: My son the detective did an excellent job. But you know what? When he started being called nigger, because nobody likes that ugly word, he complained. And when he complained, he had to come back here to work because he felt like he was working in a hostile workplace. And who wouldn’t? Who wouldn’t? Who wants to be called nigger on the job as a police officer? Who wants that? No one. That’s what happened. Then he came here and then I don’t know who called and started pulling Chief Sewell’s chain, or wanted Chief Sewell to fire my son, Frank, and fire Lt. Green. That’s what happened. That’s why Chief Sewell lost his job. That’s it. GRAHAM: And from that point, emotions ran high as residents vented frustration that had been building for weeks. SPEAKER: A lot of us are upset because we don’t know what’s going on. It feels like everything’s secret, everything’s hostile. SPEAKER: It’s not, it’s–. SPEAKER: But that’s what it feels like. I know you’re saying that’s what it is. It’s not what it feels like. GRAHAM: Including Second District Councilwoman Diane Downing, who said she had not been appraised of the details as to why Sewell was terminated. SPEAKER: You saw something that I didn’t see. [Crosstalk]. GRAHAM: Finally, in a taut encounter that embodied all of the underlying conflict in the town between race and politics and faith and community, Pastor Kathleen Moore confronted First District Councilman George Tasker, who was accused of referring to the city’s black population as ‘you people’ at the city council’s last meeting. Pastor Moore invoked faith and God as a path for truth. PASTOR KATHLEEN MOORE: I can’t see how you can sit there as a man of God and not straighten this up. Because what you’ve been called to do bypassed what this is. Because you belong. You are a man of God, chosen and divine, called by God. COUNCILMAN GEORGE TASKER: Yes I am. MOORE: And you have to speak truth. TASKER: Whether you’re going to believe it or not. MOORE: You have to speak truth about what–. SPEAKER: He was a good man, there’s no doubt about it. He was–him and I were friends. But the morning we had to do it I said friend, I have to put friendship aside because I have to do what the people of Pocomoke City elected me to do. And that’s what [inaud.] GRAHAM: After the meeting we talked to Councilwoman Downing about her concerns. She told us she often was not privy to key information, and left uninformed when the council meets privately. COUNCILWOMAN DIANE DOWNING: There probably are a conglomerate of meetings I wasn’t invited to, because they sometimes talked among themselves. And they’d talk before a meeting, and they might say something so all of them are privy to whatever they’re talking about. And I don’t get that. And I walk in, and everybody’s quiet. GRAHAM: Here outside of City Hall the crowds are gone. But the divisions within the community remain. The confrontation between the supporters of Mayor Bruce Morrison and the supporters of Chief Kelvin Sewell is at a deadlock. Residents say it was like watching a close-knit family be torn apart. But the question lingers: will this community ever be able to heal, and will their chief ever be able to return to his post? This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting from Pocomoke City, Maryland for the Real News Network. For full disclosure, Stephen Janis wrote a book on policing with Kelvin Sewell.


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Host & Producer
Taya Graham is an award-winning investigative reporter who has covered U.S. politics, local government, and the criminal justice system. She is the host of TRNN's "Police Accountability Report," and producer and co-creator of the award-winning podcast "Truth and Reconciliation" on Baltimore's NPR affiliate WYPR. She has written extensively for a variety of publications including the Afro American Newspaper, the oldest black-owned publication in the country, and was a frequent contributor to Morgan State Radio at a historic HBCU. She has also produced two documentaries, including the feature-length film "The Friendliest Town." Although her reporting focuses on the criminal justice system and government accountability, she has provided on the ground coverage of presidential primaries and elections as well as local and state campaigns. Follow her on Twitter.