Jus­tice vis­its Po­comoke City to vet im­pro­pri­ety al­le­ga­tions

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY DE­NEEN L. BROWN

A month af­ter a black po­lice chief was fired amid al­le­ga­tions of racism, Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cials trav­eled to Po­comoke City, Md., to meet with lo­cal lead­ers about the chief’s ter­mi­na­tion.

Jus­tice rep­re­sen­ta­tives also talked with res­i­dents last week about two other is­sues roil­ing the com­mu­nity: ac­cu­sa­tions that a 2011 fed­eral po­lice grant was mis­used and al­leged ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties ina re­cent city coun­cil elec­tion.

“We are look­ing at the chief’s ter­mi­na­tion,” Charles Phillips, a me­di­a­tor for the depart­ment’s com­mu­nity re­la­tions ser­vice, told dozens of res­i­dents Wed­nes­day night at New Mace­do­nia Bap­tist Church, ac­cord­ing to a video recorded by the Real News Net­work. “We are look­ing at some of the other is­sues— voter ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties — that were men­tioned.”

Po­comoke, a com­mu­nity of 4,000 that bills it­self as “The Friendli­est Town on the Eastern Shore,” has been di­vided since the ma­jor­ity-white city coun­cil fired Kelvin Sewell, the town’s first black po­lice chief.

In a com­plaint filed with the Equal Em­ploy­ment Op­por­tu­nity

Com­mis­sion, Sewell al­leged that he was ousted be­cause he re­fused to dis­miss two black of­fi­cers who com­plained about work­ing in a racially hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment. On Fri­day evening, Sewell’s mostly African Amer­i­cans up­port­ers held a rally and called for the res­ig­na­tion of Po­comoke City Mayor Bruce Mor­ri­son.

Mor­ri­son and the Po­comoke City Coun­cil have not of­fered an ex­pla­na­tion for the de­ci­sion to fire Sewell, 52, who took over the 15of­fi­cer depart­ment in 2010 af­ter re­tir­ing from the Bal­ti­more City po­lice.

“That is a per­son­nel mat­ter,” said Po­comoke City At­tor­ney Wil­liam Hud­son. “I can­not com­ment on it.”

In his EEOC com­plaint, Sewell said that he was told by the mayor that he was fired for “in­com­pe­tence,” de­spite a sig­nif­i­cant drop in crime in Po­comoke City dur­ing his ten­ure.

Last week, dur­ing the com­mu­nity meet­ing with Jus­tice Depart­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives, res­i­dents de­manded that Sewell be re­in­stated to the po­si­tion now oc­cu­pied by Mary­land State Po­lice Lt. Earl W. Starner. Starner was ap­pointed by the mayor July 6 to serve as in­terim po­lice chief.

Res­i­dents at the meet­ing also raised con­cerns about other is­sues that they said show a pat­tern of abuse of power by city lead­ers. Those is­sues in­cluded the al­leged mis­use of a $212,000 DOJ grant des­ig­nated for new po­lice hir­ing and the can­cel­la­tion of a re­cent mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion.

The con­tro­versy over the com­mu­nity polic­ing grant may have played a role in the city’s de­ci­sion to fire Sewell, said City Coun­cil mem­ber Diane Down­ing, the only African Amer­i­can on the coun­cil and the only mem­ber to vote against get­ting rid of the chief.

At a closed-door meet­ing with city of­fi­cials three days be­fore he was ter­mi­nated, Sewell was asked whether he’d gone to the Jus­tice Depart­ment with ques­tions about the way the grant money was used by long­time Po­comoke City Man­ager Rus­sell W. Blake, Down­ing said.

“They asked Chief Sewell, ‘Did you con­tact the Depart­ment of Jus­tice?’ The mayor and the city at­tor­ney ques­tioned him as to why he called them,” said Down­ing, who at­tended the meet­ing. He ac­knowl­edged that he had, she said.

Down­ing and oth­ers think the Jus­tice Depart­ment is in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether the grant money was mis­used. Blake, who re­tired June 30 af­ter 40 years in that po­si­tion, did not re­turn calls for com­ment.

“DOJ was first in­ter­ested in the grant; now they are in­ter­ested in his fir­ing,” Down­ing said.

Hud­son, the city at­tor­ney, de­nied that any­thing im­proper had oc­curred. A Jus­tice Depart­ment spokesman de­clined to com­ment.

Another is­sue that res­i­dents raised dur­ing the com­mu­nity meet­ing with Jus­tice Depart­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives was a can­celed elec­tion for a Dis­trict 4 city coun­cil seat that was not ad­ver­tised.

City of­fi­cials halted it af­ter the in­cum­bent coun­cil mem­ber, Tracey Cottman, with­drew her can­di­dacy for re­elec­tion in the ma­jor­ity-black dis­trict. Cottman’s with­drawal came af­ter the 60-day fil­ing dead­line, mak­ing her white op­po­nent, Brian Hir­sh­man, the only can­di­date on the bal­lot.

Res­i­dents com­plained that they never knew that the elec­tion was can­celed be­cause the city did not ad­ver­tise the can­cel­la­tion in lo­cal news­pa­pers. The Po­comoke City char­ter per­mits the city to can­cel an un­con­tested elec­tion but re­quires it to give the public no­tice “by pub­li­ca­tion for two suc­ces­sive weeks in a news­pa­per or news­pa­pers hav­ing gen­eral circu- la­tion in the city.”

Dur­ing a city coun­cil meet­ing ear­lier this month, Mor­ri­son told res­i­dents that the no­tice had been pub­lished. But last week, city of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edged the no­tice was never pub­lished.

Hud­son called that an over­sight, but said, “I don’t think it would have de­prived any wouldbe can­di­dates of the le­gal right to run in that dis­trict be­cause the fil­ing dead­line had long since passed.”

But Deb­o­rah A. Jeon, the le­gal di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of Mary­land, sent a let­ter April 14 re­quest­ing that Po­comoke City de­lay Hir­sh­man’s swear­ing in be­cause of con­cerns about the lack of no­ti­fi­ca­tion. She wrote that the dis­trict has a black ma­jor­ity and that Po­comoke City, which elected its coun­cil mem­bers at-large un­til it faced a 1985 le­gal chal­lenge to the prac­tice, had a history of dis­en­fran­chis­ing its African Amer­i­can res­i­dents.

Jeon ar­gued that the fail­ure to pub­lish a no­tice that the Dis­trict 4 elec­tion was can­celed was a vi­o­la­tion of the city’s char­ter and that the city’s ac­tions pre­vented one would-be black can­di­date from mount­ing a last-minute cam­paign against Hir­sh­man, who was sworn in by the mayor at a city coun­cil meet­ing on April 14. When reached by phone, Hir­sh­man, who works as a po­lice of­fi­cer in Ber­lin, said he had no com­ment on the elec­tion.

“What hap­pened here with re­spect to this mu­nic­i­pal elec­tion is ex­tremely trou­bling,” Jeon said in an in­ter­view. “Given the history in this com­mu­nity and that African Amer­i­cans had to bring a fed­eral vot­ing-rights chal­lenge to gain an ad­e­quate right to vote and fair rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the town’s elec­tion sys­tem, can­cel­ing that elec­tion with­out no­tice to those in the com­mu­nity is sim­ply un­fair and should be con­sid­ered un­law­ful.”

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