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Family of Anton Black settles wrongful-death suit with Md. police

Three Eastern Shore towns will pay $5 million and institute changes in policing to prevent more officer-involved deaths

Antone Black and Jennell Black, parents of Anton Black, a 19-year-old who died in police custody in 2018, at a news conference Aug. 8 in Denton, Md. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Three small towns on Maryland’s Eastern Shore will pay $5 million to the family of Anton Black, a Black teenager who died in 2018 during an encounter with a White police officer, and will institute changes in policing to prevent more deaths involving police.

The settlement ends a nearly two-year legal battle by Black’s family and the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black, a grass-roots group that has fought for transparency and accountability in Black’s death, against the towns of Greensboro, Ridgely and Centreville, and two officers and two police chiefs from those towns. The litigation against the state medical examiner’s office, also a defendant in the lawsuit, continues.

“No family should have to go through what we went through,” Jennell Black, Anton Black’s mother, said in a statement. “I hope the reforms within the police departments will save lives and prevent any family from feeling the pain we feel every day.”

Attorneys Lyndsey Ryan, Patrick W. Thomas and Sharon Vanemburgh, who represent the three towns, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The settlement imposes a new use-of-force policy that, among other things, restricts restraining a suspect in the prone position, a long-criticized technique that was brought to the forefront after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd in 2020. It requires additional police training for intervention, implicit bias and de-escalation. The agreement also mandates mental health response training for all current and new officers and requires the towns to introduce new officers to the community through a town meeting and for the officers to remain on probation for one year.

“Today marks a step forward on the path toward accountability for … Anton Black and toward a Maryland in which Black lives are valued,” Deborah Jeon, legal director of the ACLU of Maryland, which represented the coalition, said in a statement.

The lawsuit, which was filed in federal district court in Baltimore, claimed that officers used excessive force and accused police of violating Black’s constitutional rights with the force used. No one was charged in Black’s death.

The settlement comes nearly four years after Black, a 19-year-old college student, died in a manner that the lawsuit described as “chillingly similar” to Floyd’s death.

“Anton Black was George Floyd before George Floyd,” Antone Black, Anton Black’s father, said Monday outside the circuit court in Caroline County at a news conference to announce the partial settlement. “ … They do a dog like they did my son and somebody would be in jail.”

Floyd, whose death forced a national reckoning about systemic racism and policing, died as Derek Chauvin, a White Minneapolis police officer, pinned his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes.

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Greensboro officer Thomas Webster IV, who was responding to a call about a possible kidnapping, chased Black and used a Taser on him. The family says Black, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was experiencing a mental health crisis. Black fled on foot after Webster discovered him and a 12-year-old boy that a 911 caller said Black was roughhousing with. In an affidavit filed in response to the suit, Webster wrote that the boy, a family friend of Black’s, told Webster “something to the effect of ‘he’s crazy, he has schizophrenia’” about Black.

After the chase, police body-camera footage shows Black being tackled outside his mother’s mobile home, pinned in a prone restraint on his stomach, handcuffed and shackled at his legs. He later lost consciousness and never regained it. Webster wrote in a court affidavit that he and another officer struggled with Black, trying to keep him restrained and handcuffed.

Black’s death roiled Greensboro, a rural community about 75 miles east of D.C., sparking protests and calls for police accountability after the family waited more than four months for the autopsy report to be made public. For years, state lawmakers pushed for policing changes based on Black’s case.

In 2021, not quite a year after Floyd’s murder, Maryland passed sweeping police overhauls that repealed the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights and created new rules for when officers may use force and how they are investigated and disciplined. Since October, when a new law went into effect that requires the attorney general’s office to investigate all police-involved deaths, there have been 21 people who have died in such incidents across the state.

The package of accountability bills also included a measure in Black’s memory that requires increased transparency of public misconduct records.

Webster, the lead defendant in the case, had 30 use-of-force complaints filed against him in his previous job on the Dover, Del., police force, including a second-degree felony charge for kicking a Black man in the head while the man was kneeling in surrender. Webster was acquitted in that 2013 criminal case but was banned from the Dover force after the department settled a lawsuit filed over the incident.

Former Greensboro police chief Michael Petyo, who was aware of Webster’s history, pleaded guilty in January 2020 to one count of criminal misconduct for making “intentional misrepresentations and factual omissions” in Webster’s application for certification. Petyo was also a defendant in the civil case along with Gary Manos, the former police chief of the neighboring Ridgely Police Department, and Dennis Lannon, a police officer in Centreville. Manos and Lannon were off-duty and helped Webster restrain Black.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake issued a ruling earlier this year that was considered to be a major blow to the police.

In her ruling, Blake said the video evidence “is not so conclusive as to ‘clearly contradict’ and outweigh the plaintiffs’ allegations.” She said a reasonable jury “could reach more than one conclusion regarding whether Manos, Lannon and Webster’s use of force was reasonable.” She denied the defendants’ request for the case to be dismissed.

Black’s family and the coalition also sued the state medical examiner’s office, which at the time was led by Chief Medical Examiner David Fowler. Fowler, a named defendant in the lawsuit, testified last year as an expert witness for Chauvin in his murder trial. During the trial, Fowler deemed the cause of Floyd’s death “undetermined,” linking it to heart disease and drug use rather than to his oxygen being cut off from the pressure of Chauvin’s knee.

In 2018, the state medical examiner’s office ruled that Black’s death was accidental, saying that it was “likely that the stress of his struggle” with police contributed to his death, as did bipolar disorder and underlying heart issues.

The lawsuit accuses the medical examiner’s office of covering up “the obvious cause of death — prolonged restraint that prevented Anton from breathing.”

The suit against the state medical examiner’s office is ongoing. “We are happy that we obtained some justice for the family of Anton Black, but some justice is not full justice,” said Tomeka G. Church, one of the attorneys representing the Black family. “There still remain others who need to be held accountable for this tragedy.”

The attorney general’s office, which is representing the medical examiner’s office, declined to comment Monday.