Council rejects curfew but town remains divided on solutions for teens congregating at night
TAYA GRAHAM, TRNN: This is Taya Graham reporting for the Real News Network in Pocomoke City, Maryland. On the surface, the city of Pocomoke of Maryland’s lower eastern shore appears to have moved on from the firing of its first black police chief Kelvin Sewell last summer. But an uptick in crime and the debate over juvenile curfew reveal the fallout from his termination still has consequences in a community that is seemingly not yet healed. This is the Back Burn, Pocomoke’s predominately African American neighborhood. The signs of neglect and conflict are everywhere. CATHERINE DUFFY: They don’t care about anything. All they do is go around here starting a whole lot of trouble. They fighting. They doing everything they could possibly do. GRAHAM: It was here at the corner of Laurel and 4th street that a massive fight occurred among dozens of teenagers a month ago. Unrest has created profound concern in residents and prompted city leaders to propose a curfew during the most recent city council meeting. In the neighborhood where the fight occurred, opinions were mixed about the prospect of a new law. Some supported it. DUFFY: They do need a curfew law so they won’t have to be out on the streets all time of night, out on the corners and stuff. It’s very loud. You can’t sleep at night when you get off at night at work. You can’t sleep. GRAHAM: Others did not. JACORY WATERS: We’ll stay out the streets if you give us something more positive to do. But nah all they want to do is just pick. They just want to pick. Cops just want a reason to lock somebody up when all you got to do is set up a recreational center to keep us out the street. GRAHAM: But the teens say they have nothing else to do and that police harassment has increased. BOOKIE AND DRIKIE: It’s nothing round here. Y’all took everything. Y’all took our salvation army from us. Everything from us. Salvation Army, basketball courts. Go play basketball. We don’t got that no more. Took that from us. They barely even got nets on the courts. GRAHAM: But one thing we can all agree upon. Things have changed since Chief Sewell was terminated for what he says was his refusal to fire two black officers who’d filed discrimination complaints. Sewell filed a lawsuit alleging his termination was racially motivated. Allegations the city say are untrue. But many of the teens who run the street at night say regardless of the controversy, Sewell took a different approach to policing them. BOOKIE: We had no problems with them. They was cool. You feel me? All them other cops man. Yea they got to go. WATERS: There wasn’t as much chaos on the streets between the community and police when he was in order. GRAHAM: As proof they offered an example for the night before. They say they saw officers throw two teen girls to the ground injuring both. TUB$: They had me scared to walk past them. I didn’t know what they was going to do to me. GRAHAM: That’s terrible. Can you come forward a little bit just to tell me about what happened to that young woman. DIRKY: I don’t know I wasn’t there. I got a phone call saying they slammed my damn girl on the ground. Said she got locked up for no reason. GRAHAM: We asked the police department for comment. They declined. However, city manager Ernie Cofoot said that no injuries occurred during the arrest and the teens have been released into the custody of their parents. Sewell’s more community oriented approach which was front and center when the council debated what to do that evening. Mayor Bruce Morrison expressed skepticism that a curfew would work. BRUCE MORRISON: I’m not for sure this is the right way to go. I mean, I’m not–I want to hear from public tonight and hear what the public thinks about this. I know that I’ve talked to quite a few people in the area on Wall Street and 4th Street and they’ve seen the kind of things. They want a curfew. Then I talked to other people and they don’t want a curfew. GRAHAM: Doubts seconded by councilman Dale Trotter. DALE TROTTER: The biggest problem with a curfew for those who aren’t familiar with the curfews, curfews are civil. What that means is if you have a violator, let’s say there’s a curfew is in effect and the violator is a juvenile or someone who’s under 18 years of age and [inaud.] their curfew and they walk in the streets. The law enforcement officer is not going to be able to place him under arrest for violating it. GRAHAM: But residents say they are fed up with packs of teens carousing at all hours. COREY NOCK: We just had an incident just last night. I’m not for sure anyone’s aware of all the activity that happened over there before the law enforcement, state, had to come down and disperse the crowd. I think it was something that happened over on Cedar but it transferred on Laurel. So they chased them on Laurel and it just went out of proportion where they had to bring in more forces to try to control what was going on. SPEAKER: They made two arrests didn’t they? NOCK: Yes, and two arrests was made on last night. GRAHAM: Which is why Pastor Ronnie White representing the Citizens for Better Pocomoke suggested the city revisit the community policing plan implemented under Sewell’s tenure. RONNIE WHITE: I guess my mind went back to maybe 2 or 3 years ago when we were doing communique policing. We didn’t have all these crowds in the street and I know for a fact because I’ve been here all my life, something was going on that kept the crowds out of the street. There was more interacting with the community. So I’m trying to figure out why’s it not working now when it was working then? Because it was working. Because I know where that church when we would come out of the service we’d have people all over the street. In the street you’d have to almost run them over to come down the street. Then all of a sudden you may not want to mention it but when Chief Sewell was here he set up a community plan and things really, really got better. So if that plan was working then, why are you not using it now? GRAHAM: Proposal city manager Ernie Cofoot said he would explore. ERNIE COFOOT: Let me know if I can pull that out on the records down there. I do know that the material that we were able to locate and give to the DOJ audit to recommend to a audit for a grant, there wasn’t a lot of material left behind. But I’ll see if we can pull that out. WHITE: Because it did work. We saw people just not even on the street at all. GRAHAM: However, it’s a scenario that seems unlikely as state prosecutor Emit Davit continues to pursue misconduct charges against Sewell and another black officer Lieutenant Lynell Green. Charges tied to an accident investigation that occurred nearly two years ago. Today Davit yet again postponed the proceedings, pushing back motion hearings for Green. Sewell’s trial which was supposed to start in November is now scheduled for early December. So the safety of the community and questions of how to address it hang in the balance. As Pocomoke struggles to right itself among lingering conflicts from both the past and the present. This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Pocomoke City, Maryland. For full disclosures Stephen Janis wrote a book with Kelvin D. Sewell.