Scan­dal in the ‘Friendli­est Town’

Po­comoke, Md.: An un­likely set­ting for a racial bat­tle

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY DE­NEEN L. BROWN

The crowd gath­ered out­side City Hall last week, de­mand­ing that their com­mu­nity’s first black po­lice chief — fired amid al­le­ga­tions lev­eled against white of­fi­cers of de­part­men­tal racism— be given his job back.

In a place that bills it­self as the “Friendli­est Town on the Eastern Shore,” an­gry res­i­dents marched with posters that read “We Sup­port Chief Kelvin Sewell” and jammed in­side the quaint red-brick build­ing to voice their out­rage to the Po­comoke City Coun­cil.

Po­comoke City has been on edge since Sewell was fired by the coun­cil June 29. Ac­cord­ing to the for­mer chief and his sup­port­ers, he was sacked for re­fus­ing to dis­miss two black of­fi­cers who de­scribed work­ing in a hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment.

The of­fi­cers al­leged in com­plaints with the U.S. Equal Em­ploy- ment Op­por­tu­nity Com­mis­sion that they faced racism that was overt and ram­pant — al­le­ga­tions the city de­nies. Among the in­ci­dents al­leged: a food stamp su­per­im­posed with Pres­i­dent Obama’s face that was left on a black de­tec­tive’s desk and a text mes­sage that read, “What is ya body count nigga?”

“This is one of the most egre­gious cases of pri­mary racial dis­crim­i­na­tion and re­tal­i­a­tion for as­ser­tion of rights be­fore the EEOC that I’ve seen,” said An­drew G. McBride, co-coun­sel for the Washington Lawyers’ Com­mit­tee for Civil Rights and Ur­ban Af­fairs, which is rep­re­sent­ing Sewell. “Chief Sewell has a fan­tas­tic record as a po­lice of­fi­cer. He was ter­mi­nated be­cause he stood up for two African Amer­i­can of­fi­cers who filed an EEOC com­plaint.”

Be­cause of the EEOC cases, Po­comoke City At­tor­ney Wil­liam Hud­son said he could not com­ment on the de­ci­sion to get rid of Sewell, 52, who took over the 15-of­fi­cer depart­ment five years ago

and made $71,000 a year. The coun­cil has not of­fered a public ex­pla­na­tion for its ac­tion, but Hud­son said, “We deny there was im­pro­pri­ety what­so­ever on the part of the city, the for­mer city man­ager, as well as the­mayor and the coun­cil.”

In a town of just 4,000 evenly split be­tween blacks and whites, the case has pit­ted Sewell’s mostly African Amer­i­can sup­port­ers against the mostly white city coun­cil.

On Mon­day night, dozens of res­i­dents praised Sewell’s per­for­mance, point­ing out that ar­rests have risen and se­ri­ous crimes have fallen since he took over the depart­ment. His sup­port­ers told the five-mem­ber coun­cil that Sewell helped get rid of drug deal­ers who did busi­ness on Po­comoke City’s streets. He cham­pi­oned com­mu­nity polic­ing, re­quir­ing of­fi­cers to get out of their pa­trol cars and walk their beats. He checked on el­derly res­i­dents.

“You ter­mi­nated a man who made a dif­fer­ence,” said the Rev. James Jones, pas­tor of Mace­do­nia Bap­tist Church, who pre­sented the coun­cil with a pe­ti­tion with 500 sig­na­tures seek­ing Sewell’s re­in­state­ment.

Sewell ar­rived in Po­comoke City in 2010 af­ter spend­ing two decades as a po­lice of­fi­cer in Bal­ti­more, where he worked un­der­cover for five years with the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion and fin­ished his ca­reer as a homi­cide in­ves­ti­ga­tions su­per­vi­sor.

He be­came Po­comoke City’s first black chief in a part of Mary­land with a history of racial ten­sion. So­cially and eco­nom­i­cally, the Eastern Shore, which has huge pock­ets of poverty, is of­ten de­scribed as de­tached from the rest of the state.

“It’s one of those places where peo­ple are up­front about racism,” said Kathryn Bar­rett-Gaines, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of African Amer­i­can stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Mary­land Eastern Shore.

In the 20th cen­tury, the Eastern Shore was the site of sev­eral lynch­ings, ac­cord­ing to the Mary­land State Ar­chives. In Po­comoke City, a farm­hand named Edd Wat­son was the tar­get of a mob on June 14, 1906.

To­day, Po­comoke City is a poor place with a me­dian house­hold in­come of less than $30,000 a year and an un­em­ploy­ment rate dou­ble the state’s av­er­age of 5.3 per­cent.

“My whole life, we have been treated as lower than Cau­casians when it comes to get­ting jobs,” said Kelli Crop­per, 42, a teacher in Po­comoke City, which is about a three-hour drive south­east of Washington across the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Bridge.

The po­lice depart­ment em­ploys eight white of­fi­cers and seven black of­fi­cers, Sewell said. Its cur­rent trou­bles be­gan three years ago when de­tec­tive Franklin L. Sav­age was de­tailed to the Worces­ter County Crim­i­nal En­force­ment team. The eight-mem­ber task force was made up of of­fi­cers from Ocean City, Dorch­ester County, Mary­land State Po­lice and Po­comoke City. Sav­age was the only African Amer­i­can as­signed to it.

Sav­age said that dur­ing his two years on the task force, he was con­sis­tently sub­jected to racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion, in­clud­ing the re­peated use of the “n-word” and ref­er­ences to the Ku Klux Klan.

In De­cem­ber 2013, he walked out­side for a lunch break and found a bloody deer tail on the wind­shield of his un­marked po­lice car, he said in his EEOC com­plaint. A group of white of­fi­cers stood nearby, laugh­ing. Four months later, he al­leged, the food stamp with Obama’s face su­per­im­posed on it was left on his desk.

Sav­age, now 35, re­ported the in­ci­dents to his su­per­vi­sor, but he said the be­hav­ior did not stop.

“Each day I went to work, I felt hurt, ashamed and con­fused. Racism still ex­ists,” Sav­age said. “And we took an oath to do the right thing each day.”

The Mary­land State Po­lice Crim­i­nal En­force­ment Di­vi­sion even­tu­ally found that Sav­age’s com­plaints against one cor­po­ral were jus­ti­fied and promised in a let­ter that the of­fender would be pun­ished.

Last year, Sav­age re­turned to the Po­comoke City po­lice depart­ment, where he said the ha­rass­ment and dis­crim­i­na­tion con­tin­ued. Sav­age said he was stripped of his ti­tle of de­tec­tive and moved to ad­min­is­tra­tive duty, check­ing com­puter se­rial num­bers and clear­ing old files. He filed a com­plaint with the EEOC on July 21, 2014.

Lt. Lynell Green said the ha­rass­ment against him be­gan af­ter he at­tended a me­di­a­tion ses­sion in sup­port of Sav­age.

“It all started when I stood be­hind De­tec­tive Sav­age,” said Green, 49, who said his overtime pay was cut. “I’ve never ex­pe­ri­enced any­thing like that in my life.”

Green, a for­mer Bal­ti­more po­lice of­fi­cer who be­gan work­ing for Po­comoke City in 2011, filed an EEOC com­plaint March 15.

Dur­ing this time, Sewell said he was be­ing pres­sured by Mayor Bruce Mor­ri­son, the city man­ager and the Worces­ter County Sher­iff ’s Of­fice to fire the of­fi­cers.

Sewell filed an EEOC com­plaint March 9 and was fired af­ter a 4-to-1 vote by the city coun­cil three months later.

In­side the coun­cil room Mon­day night, Diane Down­ing, the body’s only black mem­ber, said there was no rea­son for the chief’s fir­ing. “I was there, and there was no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for fir­ing him,” Down­ing said to ap­plause.

“We want to know tonight, by whose au­thor­ity was the chief fired?” said the Rev. Ron­nie White, pas­tor of House of Love Out­reach Chris­tian Cen­ter in Po­comoke City. He noted that long­time City Man­ager Rus­sell W. Blake re­tired the day af­ter Sewell was fired.

Jones de­manded that the coun­cil change the town’s sign: “Please send some­body to the South End to take ‘ The Friendli­est Town on the Eastern Shore’ off that sign.”

The crowd cheered. The­mayor banged the gavel.

Ge­orge Tasker, a white coun­cil mem­ber who is pas­tor of Abun­dant Life Apos­tolic Church, tried to calm the crowd. “I’m just a moun­tain boy,” he said. “I don’t know how to ad­dress y’all African Amer­i­can peo­ple.”

Af­ter­ward, res­i­dent Vanessa Jones, 56, said the way Sewell and the black of­fi­cers have been treated re­veals just how en­trenched racial at­ti­tudes re­main in her home town.

“Po­comoke City has al­ways had a history of prej­u­dice,” she said. “It’s al­ways been racial here, al­ways. It’s sup­posed to be one of the friendli­est towns on the Eastern Shore, and that is not true.”

de­neen.brown@wash­post.com

PHOTOS BY MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST

Kelvin Sewell, at top, the first black po­lice chief of Po­comoke City, Md., was fired June 29. No rea­son was given pub­licly. He and his back­ers say it’s be­cause he had re­fused to fire two black of­fi­cers— Franklin L.

Sav­age, be­low left, and Lynell Green— who had com­plained of racial hos­til­ity in the depart­ment.

MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST

Peo­ple wait to get into Po­comoke City Hall to show their sup­port for fired po­lice chief Kelvin Sewell.

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