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Firing of first black police chief continues to divide community even as new top cop says he won’t live in the city

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TAYA GRAHAM, TRNN: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network here in Pocomoke City, Maryland. This is the third meeting of the Pocomoke City Council since they fired their first African-American police chief, Kelvin Sewell. In an unexpected move the city council moved their meeting forward one week early, drawing curiosity and crowds as they wonder what’s next for the friendliest town on the Eastern Shore. Looming over the historic downtown of Pocomoke City on Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore is a massive American flag. A bright and supposed symbol of equality. But inside the town’s historic city hall, the rights of the people appear to be on shakier ground. INTERIM CITY MANAGER ERNIE CROFOOT: We could discuss this point till the cows come home. The general rule is it’s up to the government to determine its own agenda, not the public. PASTOR RONNIE WHITE: How are we going to, what you say, come together and reason together and bring the community and law enforcement–hold on, let me finish. And bring the community and the law enforcement and the city council people together, and you don’t even want us to talk? GRAHAM: That’s because when the supporters of the city’s first black police chief, Kelvin Sewell, and the city officials who fired him met face to face again at the monthly city council meeting the conciliatory gestures of previous encounters had vanished. MAYOR BILL MORRISON: Is it fair for you to call [inaud.] after five nights after I talked to you–. PASTOR WHITE: Let me say–hold on, hold on. Hold on one minute. GRAHAM: Instead the anger of the elected officials who fired Sewell became evident, as they appeared to have lost patience with the African-American community’s demand for answers as to why the chief was let go. The proceedings were tense almost from the start, when Councilwoman Diane Downing was forced to add back into the minutes tense exchanges in the previous meeting about the secretive process that led to Sewell’s dismissal back in June. MORRISON: Are there any additions or corrections to the minutes? COUNCILWOMAN DIANE DOWNING: I have additions. [Inaud.] made a statement that he had fasted and prayed for two weeks so he could make the right decision about Chief Sewell, and I believe that that should go in there. GRAHAM: A process that has been under scrutiny since the ACLU filed an Open Meetings Act complaint, alleging the council held two meetings without notifying the public or releasing the minutes, which is required by law. But even the introduction of the city’s new pick for police chief, William Hardin, couldn’t quell the distrust growing between the town and its leaders. CHIEF WILLIAM HARDIN: My intent in coming here, of all the places that I’ve had office to work, my intent in coming here is to place my efforts in a location where I think they would work best. And I think Pocomoke is that location. GRAHAM: A lack of connection that boiled over as interim city manager Ernie Crofoot explained his decision to remove the Citizens for Better Pocomoke, a group that supports Sewell, off the evening’s agenda. PASTOR WHITE: Why is it today that after we talked you told me that you had the authority to take me off the agenda? Matter of fact, you told me I wasn’t going to be on the agenda tonight because you said so. CROFOOT: It’s my job to determine this agenda. You don’t determine that agenda. I determine the agenda. PASTOR WHITE: That part I don’t [buy]. CROFOOT: Well, then when you–why don’t you come sit here, then? GRAHAM: And became even more explicit when Mayor [Bruce] Morrison lashed out at the press for what he said were inaccuracies about who was to blame for initially rebuffing the group’s efforts to be heard. MORRISON: For you to call the [inaud.] after five nights after I talked to you and put my name [inaud.] PASTOR WHITE: Hold on, hold on. Hold one one minute. You just–. MORRISON: Was that fair? Pastor, was that fair? PASTOR WHITE: You just–let me finish, let me answer your question. MORRISON: No, I’m asking you a question, now. PASTOR WHITE: Let me answer your question. You asked me a question, so I’m going to answer. Hold on, be still for a minute. Let me say this. I didn’t call the blog in the first place. MORRISON: Who did? PASTOR WHITE: I don’t know who called the blog. I don’t know who called the blog. MORRISON: [You know] he did. You said that man right there–. PASTOR WHITE: Listen, listen to me, I told you. The only people I talked to today was Real News. I didn’t tell you nobody called the blog. MORRISON: [They lied.] GRAHAM: Including rebuffing concerns about a Pocomoke police officer who posted this, a race card, while on duty. CROFOOT: The post that I saw might have been in bad taste. DOWNING: It was a racial card. CROFOOT: And I saw it. How many times do I have to say that I saw it. I saw it, and I’m here, I’m just telling you, what inflames us–I think it was in very poor taste. But it did not cross the line of that officer’s constitutional rights. SPEAKER: If he is wearing a uniform he should be held to a higher standard. GRAHAM: But perhaps no single encounter symbolizes the gap between the city’s black residents and white leadership than this exchange with the 4th District Councilman Brian Hirshman and his constituents. COUNCILMAN BRIAN HIRSHMAN: That’s my position. I want to help the town. PASTOR JAMES JONES: Okay. And–. HIRSHMAN: My kids are growing up here. GRAHAM: Hirshman was appointed to the seat to represent the majority black 4th District when the city canceled the election after Councilwoman Tracey Cottman inexplicably withdrew from the race. A cancellation city officials have admitted was not advertised as is required, but has heightened tension because city officials turned away Sheila Palmer, who wanted to run as a write-in candidate. 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. REV. JAMES JONES: How were you made aware of the vacancy? SPEAKER: Truthfully. HIRSHMAN: If–I mean, you want me to answer questions, but you’re going to pose ‘truthfully’, like I would answer it any other way. GRAHAM: Which is why the Rev. James Jones asked Hirshman to explain what he had done for his district. REV. JONES: What have you done district-wise since your appointment and your installation for the 4th District? Do you know the people? Have you met the people of your district? HIRSHMAN: My intent is, my intent is to meet as many of my constituents as possible. Sometimes that happens in bunches and sometimes it doesn’t. That a fair and acceptable answer? GRAHAM: But Hirshman also said something curious, that his one act of constituent service for someone outside of District 4 came to him for a peculiar reason: that they didn’t trust the council. HIRSHMAN: Say in the first month that I was in this seat I received a complaint and addressed it, I believe appropriately. And it was from a member of–somebody outside my district, actually, who didn’t trust anybody else on the council and called me about it. Okay? REV. JONES: Didn’t that send up an [inaud.] for you? HIRSHMAN: Sorry? REV. JONES: Didn’t that send up an [inaud.] for you? That they didn’t trust anybody else? So they came to you? HIRSHMAN: I’m not going to argue with them about who they trust and who they don’t. GRAHAM: It was a remark that was left unexplained, and prompted resident Todd Nock to call for the council to take the African-American community, which comprises nearly half the town, seriously. TODD J. KNOCK: The only way this city is going to mend anything is when every last one of you come together and get off the defense. Brian Hirshman was sitting right at the door with me earlier. Do you think he opened his mouth to speak to me? He spoke after Ms. [Mona] said something to him. We are the citizens. You didn’t even know–I live in your district. I’ve never met you. I’ve never seen you before. GRAHAM: A gap that has frayed tempers and left many wondering about the small, once-sleepy town now beset with seemingly intractable problems. A town the Real News has learned the new chief is not sure he will call home. STEPHEN JANIS, TRNN: Are you going to move to Pocomoke? HARDIN: That’s up in the air. Yeah, that’s up in the air. JANIS: Where do you live now? HARDIN: Delmar, Maryland. GRAHAM: After the meeting we caught up with Chief Hardin, who says he looks forward to healing the divide that has emerged since Sewell’s departure. HARDIN: I want to thank the people that came out tonight. From the ones that came out and supported me to the ones that are somewhat questionable about my existence here. In time I think they’ll, they’ll learn to like me. GRAHAM: But for now, he says, he will continue to commute to work. JANIS: So where is that, where is Delmar? GRAHAM: About half an hour away from here. JANIS: But right now you don’t know if you’re going to move here or not. HARDIN: No, it’s too soon. It’s too soon. GRAHAM: A perhaps understandable hedge in a city still divided by a gulf between its leaders and the citizens they claim to serve. This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Pocomoke City, Maryland. For full disclosure, Stephen Janis wrote a book with Kelvin D. 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.