Pocomoke City has agreed to settle a federal lawsuit filed against the Maryland municipality by two black police officers who alleged that they were subjected to rampant racial discrimination and retaliation, according to court documents. The town of 4,000 on the Eastern Shore also agreed to enter a consent decree mandating that it reform its policies, procedures and training for police officers.
The settlement requires Pocomoke City to refrain from engaging in “discriminatory employment practices,” to award the plaintiffs back pay and to “redress the harms that they have suffered, including physical and emotional distress, humiliation, embarrassment, loss of income, loss of over-time pay and mental anguish,” according to court documents. The proposed decree also would require that “employees and supervisors promptly report any discrimination.”
The settlement comes more than two years after Pocomoke’s first black police chief, Kelvin Sewell, former lieutenant Lynell Green and former detective Franklin Savage filed suit in federal court, alleging an “unchecked pattern and practice of virulent” discrimination by city, county and state officials.
“Today’s court filing marks an important step toward vindicating the rights of these three courageous men, who throughout this ordeal have showed themselves to be exactly the kind of police officers we all want to see in America, by standing up to racism and retaliation infecting law enforcement, despite steep personal costs,” said Deborah Jeon, legal director of the ACLU of Maryland. “Now, we look forward to turning the full force of our collective efforts to right the wrongs done to Detective Savage, who has had his life literally turned upside down by the defendants’ race discrimination and retaliation.”
Under the settlement presented to the court in March, the city agreed to pay Sewell $450,000 and Green $200,000 in damages. The case involving Savage was not settled. The city’s lead defense attorney, Daniel Karp of the Baltimore law firm Karpinski, Colaresi and Karp, did not immediately respond to requests Thursday for comment. City, county and state officials have previously denied the allegations of racial discrimination.
Sewell and Savage were fired, the suit alleged, in retaliation for filing complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Green, who later resigned, was “ostracized by the entire department” after he testified in a mediation hearing on behalf of Savage, according to the suit. Sewell was fired in 2015, the suit says, after he refused to dismiss Green and Savage after they accused the department of racial discrimination.
Savage had complained that while he worked on the Worcester County Criminal Enforcement Team task force, he was repeatedly subjected to racial harassment. In December 2013, Savage said, he walked outside for a lunch break and found a bloody deer tail on the windshield of his unmarked police car. A group of white officers stood nearby, laughing. Four months later, he alleged, a fake food stamp with President Barack Obama’s face superimposed on it was left inside his desk.
The suit listed other racial incidents Savage said he was subjected to, including a day in 2012 when four white task force members “took Officer Savage to ‘KKK Lane’ in Stockton.” The white officers, the suit alleges, told Savage, “He might see some Klan members or a noose in Stockton.” Another task force member allegedly told Officer Savage about a chest in his attic in which he kept ‘white sheets and nooses.’ ”
In 2016, the Justice Department asked to join the civil rights lawsuit filed by Sewell, Savage and Green. In a 26-page filing, the Justice Department charged that the Worcester County sheriff and the state of Maryland subjected the officers to a hostile work environment.
Dennis A. Corkery, an attorney for the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, who represented the officers, said the settlement helps bring justice for the officers.
“African American law enforcement officers in Pocomoke experienced a highly racialized environment, including routine uses of offensive language and practices that place them at risk,” Corkery said. “This case started with the awful treatment that Detective Savage endured. Chief Sewell and Lt. Green stood up for him and paid the price. They have now achieved justice and the judgment reflects the harms they endured. We are confident Detective Savage will obtain justice as well.”
Savage said in a phone interview that the case has had a tremendous impact on him and his family.
“Law enforcement is something I can no longer do,” Savage said. “And all I did was expose those who are involved in wrongdoing. . . . Once I told the truth, everybody came after me. They said my veracity was in question when all I did was tell the truth.”
Sewell, who is now chief senior investigator for the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office, said Thursday he was pleased that the consent decree would require diversity training for officers and that the training would be monitored by the federal judge assigned to this case.
“By the consent decree being put in place, something like this will never happen again, hopefully to anybody who comes to Pocomoke City and takes a job in law enforcement,” Sewell said. “I still fear retaliation.”
In a separate case, Maryland’s state prosecutor has said he plans to retry a misdemeanor misconduct case against Sewell.
The statement by Emmet C. Davitt came after the Maryland Court of Special Appeals in November overturned Sewell’s misconduct conviction. The state had accused Sewell of mishandling a motor vehicle crash in 2014, when a driver struck two unoccupied cars parked in Pocomoke City. Sewell was charged after failing to issue a citation to the driver, who said he fell asleep at the wheel. No one was injured in the crash.