Three black police officers filed a lawsuit Thursday in federal court against Pocomoke City, Md., and its police department, alleging that they were subjected to serious racial discrimination by town and county officials.
The lawsuit, which also names as defendants the city’s former manager, its mayor, the Worcester County sheriff’s office, the state’s attorney’s office and the Maryland State Police, comes seven months after the contentious firing of Pocomoke City’s first black police chief, Kelvin Sewell. He alleged in a complaint filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that he was ousted because he refused to fire two black officers who complained about working in a racially hostile environment.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, claims Sewell, Lt. Lynell Green and detective Franklin Savage “were mocked, threatened, demeaned, demoted, punished, falsely accused of misconduct, ostracized and humiliated because of their race.”
Ernie Crofoot, Pocomoke City manager and city attorney, said he hadn’t seen the lawsuit. “We haven’t received it yet,” he said, “so we have no comment.” City and county officials have previously denied the allegations of racial discrimination.
The suit demands that the court prohibit the defendants from engaging in “discriminatory employment practices and award the plaintiffs back pay and “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.”
Sewell and Savage were fired, the suit alleges, in retaliation for filing EEOC complaints. Green, who is still employed by the Pocomoke City Police Department, was “ostracized by the entire department” after he testified in a mediation hearing on behalf of Savage.
“The use of the word ‘n—-‘ long ago ceased to be tolerated in any American workplace,” the lawsuit contends. “So, too, did other forms of racial mockery, epithets, threats, humiliation, and discrimination based on race in terms of employment. Yet, the three Plaintiffs in this action — Officer Savage, Chief Sewell and Lieutenant Green — experienced unlawful conduct of this character on a daily basis.”
Andrew McBride, the lead attorney representing the officers, said he found it “shocking this kind of stuff is going on 100 miles from the nation’s capital.”
Pocomoke, which bills itself as “the friendliest town on the Eastern Shore,” has been split along racial lines since June 29, when the City Council fired Sewell, 52, the town’s first African American police chief. His supporters say Sewell was responsible for reducing the town’s crime rate.
Sewell alleged in his EEOC complaint that he was fired when he refused to fire Green and Savage. Town officials offered no public explanation for why the chief was fired, but in an interview in July, then-City Attorney William 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.”
Pocomoke City has a population of about 4,000 people, of which about 45 percent are black and 50 percent are white. The lawsuit notes that “the city is managed almost entirely by its White citizens. The mayor, [Bruce] Morrison is White. [Russell] Blake, the city manager for forty years, is White. [Ernie] Crofoot, Blake’s replacement is White. All members of the city council are white, except for one, Diane Downing.” In July, the council’s only black member said there was no just reason to fire Sewell.
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 Obama’s face superimposed on it was left inside his desk.
The eight-member task force was made up of officers from Ocean City, Dorchester County, the Maryland State Police and Pocomoke City. Savage was the only African American assigned to it.
“The Joint Task Force members would regularly refer to African Americans as ‘n——‘ in Officer Savage’s presence,” the suit said.
According to the lawsuit, on Sept. 16, 2012, a white task force member asked Savage “why African Americans are offended when a White person uses the word, ‘n—–‘ and its variants.” The white officer allegedly “then asked Officer Savage how he would personally feel if he called him a ‘n—–.’ Officer Savage indicated he would be offended.”
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, M.” 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.’ ”
Savage, 35, said that he reported the incidents to his supervisor, but that the behavior did not stop.
Eventually, the Maryland State Police Criminal Enforcement Division found that Savage’s complaints against one corporal were justified. The division promised in a letter that the offender would be punished.
On June 12, 2014, Savage resigned from the joint task force, citing the repeated use of the word ‘n—–‘ and variations by his superiors and colleagues, the lawsuit claimed.
After Savage returned from the task force to the Pocomoke City Police Department, he said he was demoted to administrative duty, checking computer serial numbers and clearing old files.
The lawsuit alleges that on March 12, 2015, an anonymous letter was left on the windshield of Chief Sewell’s car warning that the ” ‘n—–s’ Officer Savage, Lieutenant Green and Chief Sewell will be gotten rid of” and referring to Sewell as a “smart n—– chief.”
Savage claimed in the suit he also faced retaliation from a complaint he filed with the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission accusing Worcester County state’s attorney Beau Oglesby of using the n-word.
In a written response dated Nov. 24, 2014, Oglesby said that during a meeting in which he, Savage and an assistant state’s attorney discussed evidence seized during a search warrant, he read letters collected in the search.
“As part of that examination, I read the two letters that were found in the room,” Oglesby wrote. “They were read verbatim with no inflection. The content was not redacted as the letters would not be redacted if introduced in trial. As a result, the words ‘nigga,’ ‘niggas’ or ‘niggaz’ were read eight times.”
Oglesby wrote that at some point while reading the letters, “in recognition that the words might be offensive to anyone in the room, I offered for anyone offended by these words the opportunity to leave the meeting without needing to offer an explanation as to why.” Oglesby wrote that Savage did not leave the meeting.
Savage was fired on Oct. 26, 2015.
Pocomoke City’s Manager and City Attorney Ernie Crofoot have denied that Savage was fired because of his complaints.
“He wasn’t fired because of his race,” Crofoot said in an interview in November. “He wasn’t fired because of any disciplinary matters. He wasn’t fired because of any EEOC claims. That is all I’m allowed to say.”
Green, a former Baltimore police officer who began working for Pocomoke City in 2011, filed an EEOC complaint March 15. According to the lawsuit, after Green attended a mediation hearing in support of Savage, “Lieutenant Green then found himself on the wrong side of the law enforcement officialdom in Worcester County.” Green’s pay was restricted, the suit said, and he “experienced repeated acts of retaliation from his fellow officers and the Pocomoke City Council.”
Deborah Jeon, legal director for the ACLU of Maryland, which is serving as co-counsel in the discrimination case, said she found the treatment of the three officers troubling.
“The Eastern Shore sometimes seems like a place trapped in another time in terms of race relations,” Jeon said. “The facts that are detailed in this lawsuit are a really sad example of that. The kinds of overt racial hostility and discrimination that have gone on in Pocomoke City — it is hard to believe it is happening in 2016. But that is what happened there.”