The death of Anton Black in 2018 was caught on camera but did not lead to charges against the police involved. We spoke with his family about how they say authorities stonewalled their demands for an investigation.
Taya Graham: Hello. My name is Taya Graham and welcome to the Police Accountability Report. As I never get tired of saying, the point of the show is to hold police accountable. To do so, we go beyond the headlines and explore in detail how the system works to bolster, and in some cases, abet ineffective law enforcement. On this show, we’re going to examine two facets of this problem. First, we’re going to take an inside look at how police unions are gearing up to fight efforts to defund law enforcement. And then we’re going to take another look at a case that has circumstances similar to George Floyd’s, but has largely been forgotten. But before I get started, I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct, please email it to us privately at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can share it with me directly at Tayas Baltimore on Facebook and Twitter, and please like, share and comment on our videos.
I read your comments, appreciate them and answer questions whenever I can. Now, as anyone who’s watched the show knows one idea we have revisited constantly is how the political economy that is the cash that policing generates keeps policing insulated from reform. And that phenomenon has never been more relevant because in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a movement has spread across the country to defund police. This week, the Minneapolis City Council voted to dismantle the police department. They said it was completely dysfunctional. Here in Baltimore, activists called for similar reform from our own city council. As you can see from the images we shot of their protests, but the demands raised two interesting questions. What does it actually mean to defund police? And can it actually happen?
To answer these questions, I’m joined by my reporting partner, Stephen Janis. Stephen, thank you so much for joining us.
Stephen Janis: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Taya Graham: Now, before I ask a question, I want to put a video up on the screen that was obtained by our colleague photo journalist, Cameron Granadino. It’s a meeting with members of the Los Angeles Police Department and a member of the city council. The meeting was held after the mayor proposed cutting $150 million from the police budget and investing it in housing and education. Let’s watch.
Speaker 3: [inaudible 00:02:04] you bow down to black lives matter. These police officers that are out here protected the city, they’re protecting it from [inaudible 00:02:15]. If it wasn’t for them, this city would be burned down right now.
Taya Graham: Stephen, what do we know about this video? Who is talking and what does it mean for efforts to cut funding?
Stephen Janis: It’s a video of Los Angeles Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez talking to the police department, some officers in one of the divisions about the proposed cuts of 100 to $150 million in the police budget. Now, here they are actually attacking her. One of the officer’s attacking her is a vice president in the Police Union, basically giving a field threat that the city wouldn’t be safe if indeed they cut funding. So it’s been a pretty controversial video.
Taya Graham: What does this video tell you about the fight over funding for policing? It sounds like a very familiar argument.
Stephen Janis: Well, basically it shows you how the dynamic works. Why policing always gets so much money even in cities like Baltimore, where they can’t afford it. Because they use the idea and the specter of fear. “You’re not going to be safe. We’re the invisible line between that fear of others, the fear of crime, the fear of race and the fear of people who are impoverished.” And that’s how it works. And here you can see, they are trying to threaten her and saying, “Your city would be destroyed right now.” Which is not true. It really seems like police during these protests have precipitated violence, not stopped it.
Taya Graham: So what does defunding the police actually mean? How would this process work?
Stephen Janis: Well, what it means is to get policing out of things where policing doesn’t belong. We have extended policing into so many facets of our life and of our civic life, for example, dealing with the mentally ill, and putting in into things that would be more productive like housing. People can’t be safe if they don’t have secure housing. People can’t be safe if they don’t have good jobs, put into education. But instead, we’ve expanded police to encompass almost every facet or [inaudible 00:03:53]. The idea is to get police out of that business, make it a more basic functional agency and take that money and invest it in things that are productive.
Taya Graham: We asked the Los Angeles police union for comment, and they said, “Defunding the police would be reckless and dangerous in the city.” The fiscal implications of this idea could be profound. As we pointed out before, the cold hard numbers on police spending are revealing. Cities like Baltimore or Minneapolis spend roughly 40% of their discretionary spending on policing, but it doesn’t end there. That’s because when you add in money for overtime and pensions, that number rises significantly. In the case of Baltimore city, we spend more on post retirement benefits for cops than educating our children by roughly $50 million. Thus, the idea behind this movement is to actually take some of that money and invest it into affordable housing, parks and recreation, and again, education, programs that advocates say we’ll do more to reduce crime than policing alone. Think about it. As we pointed out last week, the scenes from across the country show that police are well equipped with what looks like fairly new riot gear, pepper ball guns, and masks.
In fact, it was several years ago when Stephen and I were doing an investigation into police spending that we caught this on camera. A lot full of brand new Jeeps the police department had bought to give for free to police officers to drive home, so called take-home cars. When we asked for comment on why a city that could not afford heat for its schools would spend so much money on new take-home cars, the lot was clear. The point is, in one of the poor cities in the country, a city that cannot afford to make simple fixes to schools had enough cash to create a veritable parking lot of new vehicles for cops. This is why the idea of defunding the police is more essential to reform than for example, the legislation proposed by Democrats this week in Washington. A proposed set of laws that would bar choke holds, get rid of legal protections and seek to create an independent system to investigate police involved deaths.
But while legal reform is a component of curbing the abuse of the American law enforcement, it is the underlying growth of its presence that makes it so stubborn to oversight. Consider the hundreds of unidentified law enforcement officers operating without badges or nameplates during recent protests in the nation’s Capitol. As this article and political outline, these veritable secret police were the product of an explosive growth in law enforcement throughout federal agencies since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. A growth of police infrastructure that has created over 2,500 new jobs for cops annually since 2001 who work for federal agencies as obscure as the Bureau of Fish and Wildlife, which incidentally has a SWAT team. So what we saw on the streets of Washington, D.C was in some sense, a rendering of the reality that until now has received far too little attention. Policing is a growth industry and nothing embodies that idea more than our next story.
It’s a death at the hands of police that has been largely forgotten, but is more relevant than ever. And it occurred in a small Eastern shore town that had bolstered its police department just before the incident occurred by adding more officers and moving to a more aggressive form of policing. I have to warn you before showing you this. This footage shows the death of a young man at the hands of police. The video you’re watching on the screen is from the body cam of Greensboro Police Officer, Daniel Webster. Webster had stopped 19 year old, Anton black, while he’s walking with his cousin after a white woman called police to report a kidnapping. The allegations turned out to be false, but Webster and two other off duty officers pursued Black to his mother’s house. And then this happened. Again, I want to warn those watching and also the members of the Black family to let you know that we are showing the footage of the police actions that led to Anton’s death. The video is brutal and disturbing.
Speaker 4: [inaudible 00:07:53].
Taya Graham: Black was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. Despite evidence that Anton had died due to the officer’s actions, for months authorities did nothing. In fact, the Maryland State medical examiner did not release the cause for death until the media, including us focused on the case. And when they did, they ruled the death an accident. Despite the evidence you can see here on camera of Anton fighting for his life, struggling to breathe, similar to what happened to George Floyd, the state said he died in part two to an underlying heart condition. Remember. Anton was 19 years old, a former track star and award winning athlete and aspiring actor. And the medical examiner implied his death was his fault. The ruling prompted us to consult noted pathologist, Dr. Cyril Wecht. He had an entirely different take on what happened, concluding the death was due to positional asphyxiation and should have been ruled a homicide. Let’s listen.
Dr. Cyril Wecht…: I strongly disagree with the final diagnosis that the cause of death was a coronary artery and anatomical aberration. How convenient that he should have died from that defect at the time that he is being restrained in a position that has been barred, banned and prohibited from various national police agencies throughout the country. This is a classical case of positional asphyxiation, in which somebody is placed face down, and then someone leans on his back, presses down on his back and he’s tasered after several minutes, and then he goes limp. That’s a classical case of positional asphyxiation.
Taya Graham: But that wasn’t the only aspect of this story that relates to the movement for real reform of policing we are witnessing now, because as we investigated the case, the community shared with us their concern about a shift in policing tactics that occurred in the months right before Anton’s death, a change in tactics they opposed. Let’s listen.
Speaker 6: And members of this council said, “Things of the nature, we need police that’ll be tougher on the community, tougher on the citizens.” And despite the fact that Robin, myself went to them about the hiring of this officer and asked, “When you say tougher on the community, what do you mean?”
Taya Graham: That’s right. A small town of 2,000 people had pivoted to aggressive policing. And part of that change in strategy, including the hiring of Thomas Webster, the officer who initiated Anton’s arrest, the town’s black community opposed it because as you can see on this video, officer Webster was caught on dash cam video, kicking an African American man in the jaw while serving as an officer in Delaware. He was tried but found not guilty of assault, but soon after he left the department, Greensboro hired him.
To discuss what happened and why Anton’s case should be reopened, I’m joined by his sister, LaToya Holley. LaToya, thank you so much for joining us.
LaToya Holley: Thank you for having me.
Taya Graham: Now first, again, I am so sorry for your loss. When you look at what happened to George Floyd, how does that affect you and how do you think it’s related to Anton’s case?
LaToya Holley: There are several similarities between Mr. Floyd’s case and Anton’s. One that we’ve heard too many times, too often is the fact that he said he couldn’t breathe. That was something that Anton also said. And Eric Garner said the same thing. He couldn’t breathe. So that is one definite similarity that I could actually bring together for all three of those tragic murders, I call them. A lot of people don’t agree with me, but I call them murders, those tragic murders that have happened to Mr. Garner, Mr. Floyd, and then also my brother, Anton. Also, it’s my belief … and I can’t say for certain because I’m not going to watch the body worn camera, the fact that I know that Anton said that he could not breathe is because I happened to hear it while I was reading a news article.
A video started playing, I couldn’t see it, but then the reporter stopped speaking and it cut over. And that’s what he said. So I heard my brother’s voice specifically say that he could not breathe. And to speak on other similarities that I believe between Mr. Floyd’s case and Anton’s, is I also believe that there was some type of obstruction of Anton’s capability of breathing, whether that was an arm around his neck or something, the officer did something to Anton that prevented him from breathing. But unfortunately, I cannot say for certain because I just refuse to watch the body worn camera.
Taya Graham: So LaToya, We had Anton’s autopsy report reviewed by Dr. Cyril Wecht who said Anton died from positional asphyxiation, which comes from applying pressure to someone in a prone position, which is what an independent autopsy also found in the Floyd case. Now, originally, just like in the Floyd case, the officer’s role in the death wasn’t mentioned. The medical examiner just spoke about the underlying health conditions. Didn’t this happen with Anton’s medical examiner report as well?
LaToya Holley: Basically, the ME report went to speak about Anton’s heart. They also mentioned that the struggle with police may have contributed, but ultimately they were trying to say that there was other underlying reasons that attributed to his loss of life, which the family, we don’t believe that to be the case. I did see my brother’s body the night that he was killed. And I saw his eyes were bloodshot and they were protruding from his face. Just my life experience, it told me at that moment that his breathing was restricted. It looked like there was some type of asphyxiation just by looking at his face. It was clear as day.
Taya Graham: Now, one thing that really struck me about Anton’s case is how authorities waited for months before doing anything. What happened during that period of time and why wasn’t anything done?
LaToya Holley: It seemed my family is though they were trying to sweep the situation under the rug. What I personally found to be odd … and perhaps I’m wrong, but I thought it was odd that the State’s Attorney, Joe Riley was on the scene the night my brother was killed. So I don’t know if that is common practice for the attorney to appear on a crime scene, especially that’s involving police officers. I just thought that was very strange. It seems to me that a lot of individuals had their minds made up from that very night of what they were and weren’t going to do.
Taya Graham: Now, you pressed for reform after Anton’s death, including a new law called Anton’s Law that would have given families access to an officer’s record after he or she is involved in in custody death. What happened with that law?
LaToya Holley: We’re actually … the police unions are fighting against us. They’re battling with us as far as changing the MIPA. They are using the excuse that their police officers’ personal information, such as their addresses and so forth would be available to the public. There would be some expectation that I would see if that information was redacted, of course, that is not anything that I think that is ultimately terribly important. What we’re concerned with is other families being able to … and other citizens being able to obtain the information that they need to be able to access any reports against police officers as far as their abuse of power. I know there’s a term for it, excessive force of abuse.
So we definitely want those records to be available to the public. We feel very strongly that if Webster’s excessive force of abuse record had been made available, that that could have led possibly to him not being hired in the first place, which was validated when he lost his certification, when Maryland de-certified him, because that information was missing.
Taya Graham: Should they reopen an investigation into Anton’s death? What do you want to see happen? And what can actually happen?
LaToya Holley: We certainly would like to see a re-investigation into what happened to Anton, but we believe that a lot of information has been mishandled. It has not been properly provided to individuals that would need to see this information to make the decision to hopefully bring the officers involved to at least a grand jury hearing, so that all the facts could be laid out on the line and that the public can make a decision as to whether or not they should be charged. Of course, we stand by, we do believe that they should be charged, and we’re not going to give up hope that we could hopefully get something done and get these officers off the street.
Taya Graham: It’s worth noting that we reached out to the Maryland Attorney General, Brian Frosh to ask if Anton death warranted a new investigation, but their reply says much about where we are with police reform in this country. Because a spokesperson for the attorney General’s office told us they don’t have the legal authority to intervene in the case. That is the final decision on if and when to charge officers involved in Anton’s death remains with the prosecutor of the County where his death occurred. So we can see in Anton’s case much of the genesis for the movement calling, for the dismantlement of the country’s law enforcement industrial complex, a young man dies in circumstances that raises serious questions about the actions of the officers involved, but instead of investigating swiftly and providing answers to the family, the authorities drag their feet, refused to release body cam footage and withhold the findings of an autopsy.
And only when the media descends on Greensboro and the family mounts a concerted campaign seeking answers, does the government respond. And then their findings clear the officers of any wrongdoing and lead Anton and his supporters still seeking justice to this day. The point is, cases like Anton’s which have been forgotten are in part the reason we are witnessing protests across the country. What happened to him is why activists seek not just to reform policing, but in some sense, dismantle it. The rallying cry we hear on the streets of American cities is not just about George Floyd, but about the countless others who died while in police custody who have not received justice. And most revealing, how the system itself protected the officers from criminal liability for the actions which led to his death.
It’s worth noting there was in fact, a prosecution as a result of Anton’s case. Shortly after he died, the State Police Training Commission revealed that the chief of Greensboro police had withheld information regarding at least two dozen use of force complaints against officer Webster from his prior job in Delaware. The complaints were supposed to be submitted as part of his application to become a police officer in Maryland, but were illegally omitted. Police Chief Petyo pled guilty to one count of misconduct, which led to a suspended sentence and no jail time.
He has since resigned from his job in Greensboro and became a cop in Delaware. So we have the senseless death of a young man during a false arrest. We have the anguish of a family over the loss of a child, full of untapped potential loss forever. We have a community that’s still suffers from the consequences of a move to aggressive policing, and a town that will most likely have to pay a yet to be determined settlement as a result of the civil suit for which the community will all be required to pay.
What we have here is a true imbalance of justice that American policing has wrought. A life lost. A community is torn apart. A young man taken from this earth and no one fully held accountable. Activists say it’s the type of open wound that will not heal unless our leaders in Washington act. The type of psychological terror that has been wrought in the name of the badge that has permeated the landscape of our nation and refuses to release its grip on both our governance and our wallets. It’s the reason the calls to disband policing cannot be ignored.
But to truly give a sense of what is wrong with American policing, I will let one of Anton’s family members have the last word, his father, Anton Black Sr. on what they did to his son and how the pain still resonates to this day. It is his words that say the most about what ails us and how those problems might linger long after the protests are over. What we cannot allow is for any of us to forget his pain or his son. Let’s listen.
Anton Black Sr.: This is an injustice to my child, but we need to help because it could be an injustice to your child. This is happening too much. This boy was, like I said, they called him Pretty Ricky, but he was a good child. He’s going to college. He’s modeling. He’s doing things, they’re putting Greensboro on the map. He’s a favorite son. And they run him down and treated him like a runaway slave. They corner him and put him in a choke. They killed him. And yes, they lynched my son. I said it three or four times, they lynched him, except they don’t use the rope now, they use their arm.
Taya Graham: I want to thank my guest, LaToya Holley, for speaking with us about her brother’s tragic death today and her continued fight for justice. Thank you, Latoya.
LaToya Holley: Thank you so much. And thank you and Steve for continuing to keep this alive. You know what I mean? You guys keep writing and always circle back to Anton.
Taya Graham: I also want to thank my cohost and reporting partner, Stephen Janis for his invaluable work on this piece.
Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Taya Graham: And of course, I have to thank friend of the show, Noli Dee for her support. Thank you, Noli Dee. And I want you watching to note that if you have evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us and we might be able to investigate. Please reach out to us. You can email us tips privately at email@example.com or reach out to us at Police Accountability Report on Facebook or Instagram or Eyes on Police on Twitter. And of course, you can reach me directly at Tayas Baltimore on Twitter and Facebook.
And please like, share and comment. You know I read your comments and appreciate them. My name is Taya Graham. I’m the host of the Police Accountability Report. Please be safe out there.
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.
Stephen Janis is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work has been acclaimed both in print and on television. As the Senior Investigative Reporter for the now defunct Baltimore Examiner, he won two Maryland DC Delaware Press Association Awards for his work on the number of unsolved murders in Baltimore and the killings of prostitutes. His in-depth work on the city's zero-tolerance policing policies garnered an NAACP President's Award. As an Investigative Producer for WBFF/Fox 45, he has won three successive Capital Emmys: two for Best Investigative Series and one for Outstanding Historical/Cultural Piece.
He is the author of three books on the philosophy of policing: Why Do We Kill? The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore; You Can't Stop Murder: Truths About Policing in Baltimore and Beyond; and The Book of Cop: A Testament to Policing That Works. He has also written two novels, This Dream Called Death and Orange: The Diary of an Urban Surrealist. He teaches journalism at Towson University.