New York Times
A fired black police chief and two black officers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court in Baltimore on Thursday, alleging the kind of Jim Crow-era racial discrimination that “most Americans would have believed unthinkable in the second decade of the 21st century.”
The suit grows out of the firing of Kelvin Sewell, the former chief of the 16-member police department in Pocomoke City, a racially mixed community of 4,000 people that bills itself as “the friendliest town on the Eastern Shore.” Mr. Sewell has called his firing in June, by a mostly white City Council, “racially motivated” payback for his refusal to fire the other two officers, also plaintiffs in the case, after they complained of discrimination.
The suit, filed Thursday morning in United States District Court for the District of Maryland, alleges an openly hostile climate in which Chief Sewell and the two black officers — one of whom was also fired — were subjected to “racial mockery, epithets, threats, humiliation and discrimination” by the law enforcement community in Pocomoke and its surrounding county, Worcester, on the lower Eastern Shore.
The suit names a string of defendants, including Pocomoke City, the state’s attorney in Worcester County and several law enforcement departments: the Pocomoke City Police Department, the Worcester County Sheriff’s Department and the Maryland State Police. Officials from Pocomoke City and the Worcester County Sheriff’s Department declined to comment on the complaint, as did the Maryland attorney general, who represents the state police.
Mr. Sewell’s firing ripped apart Pocomoke City, forcing lifelong friends and neighbors to confront how differently they viewed issues of race and policing. According to the complaint, the chain of events that ultimately led to his dismissal began with another plaintiff in the suit, Franklin Savage, a Pocomoke officer who had been assigned to work with a regional drug task force.
Over a two-year period, the suit alleges, members of the task force repeatedly subjected Officer Savage to harassment, including using racial epithets in his presence, taking him to a street they called “KKK Lane,” placing a fake food stamp with a superimposed picture of President Obama on his desk drawer, and putting a bloody deer’s tail on the windshield of his car.
When Officer Savage complained, the suit says, he was “railroaded out of law enforcement in Worcester County,” his duties were restricted and he was “blackballed from testifying in criminal cases” by Worcester County’s state’s attorney, who is white. Chief Sewell, the complaint says, was pressured by Pocomoke City officials to fire Officer Savage but refused; the officer was fired anyway.
The third officer, Lt. Lynell Green, remains with the Pocomoke City Police Department but has experienced “repeated acts of retaliation,” the suit says, for attending a mediation hearing regarding a discrimination claim that Officer Savage filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Because federal employment complaints involving the officers are pending, and have been filed under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the lawsuit filed Thursday is being brought under a Reconstruction-era civil rights law, according to Andrew McBride of the law firm Wiley Rein, who represents the three officers, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
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