POCOMOKE CITY, Md. (AP) — Residents of a small town on Maryland's Eastern Shore vented their frustrations and concerns about the ouster of the town's first black police chief at a City Council meeting Monday that devolved into angry shouting.
Two local pastors, representing a group called Citizens for a Better Pocomoke, called on the mayor and council members to work with them to reinstate former Pocomoke City police Chief Kelvin Sewell.
"The integrity and reputation of our community is our utmost concern, and we feel has been greatly compromised, ... " the Rev. Ronnie White of the House of Love Christian Center said. "This act has destabilized our community and now brought about division."
Mayor Bruce Morrison said he was willing to work with the group to help heal the predominantly black town, which has been torn by racial tension, but Sewell would not likely get his job back.
"I don't see that happening, bringing Chief Sewell back," Morrison said.
Sewell did not attend Monday's council meeting, which began on a cordial note that turned into sharp exchanges between audience members, the mayor and Councilman George Tasker, who was accused of referring to supporters of Sewell as "you people."
"It's getting out of hand," Morrison said as he banged the gavel to close the meeting.
Sewell said last month that he was dismissed for refusing city officials' demands that he fire two fellow black officers who filed complaints saying they had been treated unfairly.
"Basically, they said they wanted me to resign," said Sewell, who told officials they would have to fire him.
"I didn't do anything wrong," Sewell told The Associated Press, adding that officials told him he was fired because of incompetence.
After Sewell's firing, some residents of the town, which bills itself as "The Friendliest Town on the Eastern Shore," began a petition to have him reinstated and called for the ouster of Morrison, who is white. The Justice Department sent community affairs representatives to a church gathering last month to listen to residents' concerns.
Sewell joined the Pocomoke City Police Department in 2010 after retiring from the Baltimore Police Department and was promoted to chief in 2011. He filed a complaint earlier this year with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming he was not given a contract and was paid much less than his white predecessors. Sewell is now amending the complaint to add that he was fired for refusing to fire Officers Franklin L. Savage and Lynell Green.
Andrew McBride, a lawyer for the three men, said city officials viewed Savage and Green as "troublemakers."
City officials deny the allegations, but their ability to address the issue publicly is limited because of pending litigation and privacy rules regarding personnel issues.
"I believe that when all of the facts are in, the actions of the council will be vindicated," City Attorney William Hudson said.
"We emphatically deny the allegation that the chief's separation resulted from a refusal on his part to terminate the officers," Hudson added.
The allegations of discrimination stem from Savage's two-year stint on the Worcester County Criminal Enforcement Team, a multijurisdictional drug unit. Savage, the only black officer on the task force, filed an EEOC complaint last year saying that he was repeatedly subjected to racial slurs and harassment.
"It was extensive, and no discipline was imposed on the two leaders of the task force," McBride said.
The Maryland State Police, however, informed Savage in a letter that it would penalize one of its officers for "unbecoming conduct."
Green says he was harassed and his overtime hours were restricted after he attended an EEOC mediation session with Savage.
Diane Downing, the lone black member of the five-person City Council and sole vote against firing Sewell, said city officials and outside authorities wanted Savage fired because he could not be trusted after filing his EEOC complaint and would not be allowed to testify in court cases.
The role Sewell's relationships with other local law enforcement agencies may have played in his firing is unclear. On at least two occasions, most recently in June, representatives of outside agencies have come into Pocomoke City to make drug arrests without Sewell's prior knowledge or participation.
"Everybody was concerned about why the other agencies were in town," Downing said.
Lt. Ed Schreier, a spokesman for the Worcester County Sheriff's Office, said the multiagency drug unit notified Pocomoke police about a drug bust in their town in late June as search warrants were being served.
"When we have an investigation, we don't tell everybody about it," Schreier noted. "We have ultimate jurisdiction over every town in the county."
Schreier declined to comment about Savage's allegations of racial harassment while a member of the task force.
"We cannot comment on any ongoing legal proceedings," he said. "It's not for us to play this out in the media."
The state's attorney's office for Worcester County also declined to comment.
This story has been corrected to show that that police chief's first name is Kelvin.