POCOMOKE CITY, Md. — 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 Employment 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 the mayor 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 long-time 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. The mayor 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.”