POCOMOKE CITY, Md. — The new police chief walks into the Market Street Deli, a gathering spot in a town still scarred by months of racial turmoil.
Most of the diners are white. William “Bill” Harden Sr., who has been on the job for about a month, is black. He pauses at the door, wearing his black uniform with gold buttons and stars and a hat embroidered in gold with the city’s emblem and the word “Chief.”
Harden, 65, knows people in Pocomoke City are still getting to know him — and still getting over what led to him being hired.
The town’s first African American police chief, Kelvin Sewell, was fired June 29, and he alleges that it was because he refused to terminate two black officers who had filed discrimination complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) — charges 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 sent that read, “What is ya body count nigga?”
After Sewell was fired by the city council and mayor, hundreds of residents demanded that he be reinstated. The town of 4,000 split largely along racial lines.
Part of Harden’s job will be to bring calm back to Pocomoke, which bills itself as “The Friendliest Town on the Eastern Shore,” and its police department, which employs seven white officers and seven black officers.
“I know there are still citizens here who feel Chief Sewell was their guy. I get that. I don’t take any issue with that, and I respect that and that is it,” Harden says.
The sideways glances. The news stories about Pocomoke. None of that bothers Harden, who spent 25 years with the Maryland State Police, many of them working undercover. Much of that time was in Baltimore, where he made drug busts and took down corrupt cops.
The Market Street Deli, where the night’s specials are fried hot dogs with baked beans or veal cutlet with green beans, is a world away from Baltimore.
The hostess greets Harden and Ernest A. Crofoot, the city’s new attorney and city manager. Harden, tall and thin with blue-gray eyes and gray mustache, surveys the dining room. He greets an elderly white couple seated at a round table.
“I’m Bill Harden, the new chief.”
“So you’re the new chief,” says Jim Butler, who says he thinks he is 87. He turns to his wife to confirm his age. Margaret Butler says she has stopped counting.
“I think you are 88,” Jim tells Margaret.
“Eighty-seven is fine with me,” she says.
“So you are the new chief?” repeats Jim Butler, who worked as a manager at a chicken company before retiring.
“Yes, I am,” Harden says. “Call me anytime.”
Harden, who’s being paid $75,000 a year, drives slowly in his black Ford Explorer down Market Street, where businesses still hang shingles and city hall is housed in a quaint two-story red brick building. His crime-fighting focus right now, he says, is protecting Pocomoke from the heroin epidemic ravaging small towns nationwide.
He crosses railroad tracks and waves at two men sitting on the porch of a tan Victorian house. Harden turns a corner and passes three boarded-up houses scheduled for a controlled burn.
Pocomoke is poor, with a median household income of less than $30,000 a year. And it may have racial tensions, he says, but nothing like those he experienced growing up in South Baltimore.
Harden’s father was a laborer, and his mother worked at home and sometimes at a Lutheran church, preparing meals. He grew up with two brothers and a sister in a two-story rowhouse and encountered plenty of racism.
When he was a teenager, he says, he and some friends decided to swim in a pool that was reserved for white people. He does not remember what compelled them, other than “we wanted to swim in a bigger pool.” The pool where they lived, he says, “was about three feet deep.”
“We got into the water, and all I can remember was the bricks and bottles,” he says. They were chased by whites who “were shouting that word. It wasn’t the first time. We were used to it.”
After graduating from high school in 1968, Harden married and got a draft letter from the Army. He decided to join the Navy instead. “Out of 82 people in my recruitment class,” he says, “me and another guy got orders to go to Vietnam.”
He survived two tough tours from 1968 to 1970. Once home, he landed a job as a store detective for the Hecht Co. He later worked as a private investigator, a railroad police officer and a University of Maryland campus police officer before joining the Maryland State Police. He retired as a division commander in 2005 at age 55.
He was working as a bailiff in the Wicomico County District Court when he got the call to apply for police chief in Pocomoke City. He says he didn’t hesitate.
“I simply felt like I could make a difference,” says Harden, the father of five adult children. “I would sit home with my wife and watch TV and watch all the issues around the country, everything with police shootings. In my heart, I didn’t feel like it was over for me. When I heard about the issues in Pocomoke, I felt like I could fix that.”
Crofoot, the city attorney, considers him an ideal fit for Pocomoke in terms of temperament and motivation, and he predicted that Harden will be one of the city’s best hires.
Harden doesn’t dwell on what happened in the Pocomoke Police Department before he was hired. “I won’t bad-mouth the previous chief,” he says.
Sewell, who is pursuing a discrimination complaint with the EEOC, returns the sentiment: “I think he’s a nice guy. I have nothing bad to say about him.”
Pocomoke remains split between those who support Sewell and those who don’t. Last month, Franklin Savage, 35, a black Pocomoke City officer, said he was fired after complaining that Worcester County State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby repeatedly used “the n-word” while discussing a case being prosecuted. The charges of what Savage’s attorney calls “relentless retaliation” have been denied by Oglesby and the city.
Michele Lucas, 48, drives around town in a black van advertising her support for former chief Sewell.
“From day one, I’ve been vocal about my support of the chief,” she says. “I’ve seen crime decrease since the chief. I never seen a chief walk the community the way he did. He was like, ‘I’m family. What can I do to help?’ People felt comfortable to call the police department. The chief interacted with us. When he was fired, I was devastated.”
Lucas, who is white, says her support for Sewell has brought her sneers. A few months ago, she went into a glass shop for a car-window repair.
“They looked at me and said, ‘You are the one who supports the chief? I seen you on television. We don’t want your business here.’ ” She says her bumper stickers supporting Chief Sewell have been ripped off her van.
Lucas says she believes that somebody came into her yard a few weeks ago and shot her chickens in revenge for her support of Sewell.
“I know they are chickens, but they were my pets,” she says. “They had names. They came when I called them.” Lucas begins to cry, sitting at a table at a Royal Farms gas station in Virginia, just outside Pocomoke City. Across the street is a Dixie sign that reads “The South Starts Here.”
Inside the police department’s modest one-floor tan building, Harden begins roll call at 4 p.m.
Four officers listen as he reads some information about uniforms and explains that new Stetson hats will be delivered. One of them is Lt. Lynell Green, a black officer who alleges that he was harassed because of his support of Savage in his EEOC complaint, then wound up filing his own.
The chief reads a summary about officers killed in the line of duty in 2015 across the country. “Eight were performing traffic pursuits or stops. That’s important, because we are on [Route] 13 doing interdictions,” Harden says. “In a department so small, we need to back each other up. You are the guarantee he goes home tonight.”
“That’s it. Let’s hit the street.”