EASTON — The Coalition for Justice for Anton Black, the Talbot County branch of the NAACP and Talbot Rising presented a discussion on the life and death of Anton Black on Thursday, May 23, at the Talbot County Free Library.
Anton Black, an African-American teenager from nearby Greensboro in Caroline County, was 19 when he died in police custody on Sept. 15, 2018. An aspiring model and soon-to-be father at the time of his death, Black was fleeing police when he was held down by officers.
An autopsy found Black died of “sudden cardiac death” due to an undiagnosed heart condition and that his struggle with police officers likely contributed to his death.
“Anton died in front of me,” his mother, Jennell Black, said. “Anton was a good kid. He never got suspended from school. He told me, ‘Mommy, you never have to worry about me getting locked up.’
“Not all police officers are bad. You have some good ones, and you have some crooked ones. It’s the crooked ones that need to pay, because it is not fair that the good ones have to be looked down because of what bad ones did.”
Black had been diagnosed as bipolar before his encounter with Greensboro Police Officer Thomas Webster IV, who responded the evening of Sept. 15, 2018, to a 911 call reporting Black possibly was trying to abduct a 12-year-old boy near the Choptank River Bridge in Greensboro.
After a brief foot chase that ended at Black’s family’s home on Greensboro Road, Black jumped into a car parked outside the home and locked it. Webster broke the driver’s window with his baton, then tried to deploy a taser.
When Black came out of the car on the passenger’s side, he was restrained by Webster, two off-duty officers from neighboring police departments and a civilian.
Black started showing signs of medical distress soon after he was restrained and later was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Rene Swafford, Black’s family attorney, said there were two versions of the body-camera footage leading up to Black’s death — one shown to the legal team and one shown to the NAACP. One version was shown to the legal team, had very poor audio and sound in and out. She recalls not seeing any initial stop on the video the state’s attorney showed her, no struggle, nor how Black got inside of the vehicle and out of the vehicle.
“This is gross misconduct on the part of the officers that were involved, and that is going to be our job to go forward on the civil suit since the state’s attorney chose not to indict,” Swafford said. “But I don’t want anyone here thinking that this is just a police issue or this is just a black issue. It is a community issue.”
Richard Potter, co-founder of the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black , gave an update from the group and the family’s demands for justice, and the status of ongoing investigations. For example, the Town of Greensboro met the coalition’s demand to place Webster, the Greensboro police officer involved in Black’s death, on paid administrative leave.
Webster was hired despite a history of complaints while an officer in Delaware. The Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission has decided to hold a hearing to decide whether to revoke Webster’s police certification.
In February, Del. Gabriel Acevero, D-39-Montgomery, introduced House Bill 1011, or “Anton’s Law,” to provide for increased transparency and accountability regarding investigations of alleged police misconduct in Maryland.
On March 8, the coalition attended the Greensboro Town Council meeting to ask for Webster to be terminated after Webster violated the Greensboro Police Department’s own guidelines for responding to someone with a mental health crisis.
However, the regular process of speaking was not available to coalition members. That night was the night that kicked off a complaint to the Open Meetings Compliance Board.
“When we walked into the meeting, typically you go to the podium, there would be a sign in sheet, check whether you want to speak, and then you have a seat. That night, the form was not there,” Potter said.
The town manager said the town had changed the process, telling Potter if he wanted to speak, the council had to be aware of it seven days prior. If the council wants information, you have to provide that information again before speaking.
“I said to her that I wanted to get a copy of the policy, and I noted that it was approved by the council and mayor sometime in February,” Potter said. “I knew once I got the approval, I won that. Essentially, we have been watching them getting their minutes from the entire time we have been there. There was no indication in their minutes that they have approved this policy.”
Because there was no indication in the minutes of when this policy was approved, Potter filed a complaint.
On March 14, the coalition filed a public information request for documents that would gather how the council deliberated and voted on the change to the policy relating to the public comments during the council meeting. On May 9, the coalition submitted, along with the ACLU, its official complaint to the Maryland Open Meeting Compliance Board stating the Greensboro Town Council adopted and approved a change to the policy that would limit the public from speaking at town hall meetings without openness or transparency.
“We are not done. We are far from done. Every individual involved in this, we want to hold accountable,” Potter said.
A discussion followed on what protocols are in place to prevent similar incidents from occurring in Talbot County with St. Michaels Police Chief Anthony Smith, Talbot County Sheriff Joe Gamble, Easton Police Chief David Spencer, Maryland State Police Assistant Bureau Chief/Field Operations Bureau Maj. Roland Butler and Maryland State Police Lt./Assistant Commander of Education and Training Greg Chatfield.
Gamble addressed the use of force that is allowed when someone is unarmed and fleeing including taser. In a generic sense, Gamble said, that use of force policy comes from the courts.
“When my father was a police officer, the use of force law was different than when I became police officer.” Gamble said. “The use of force is the least amount of force necessary to effect whether it is an arrest or to calm the peace, but all of our policies say the least of force is necessary.”
Chatfield said Maryland State Police has used force 251 times in 2018 across the state.
“That was 0.02% of all the citizen contacts that we have and only 1.5% of all of our arrests, the trooper has to use force,” Chatfield said. “We are finding that our de-escalation training is effective. We are resolving incidents before we have to take any physical action. We can still do better, and we are moving in that direction.”
Spencer addressed the role of racial bias and said as a society, there is a lot of learning through the cultural diversity training and implicit biased training
“In 2016, we offered an in-services training to all officers in Talbot County, and part of that in-services, we gave an eight-hour class entitled ‘Cops and Culture,’” Spencer said. “It was based on cultural diversity implicit bias. They then went to visit the Chesapeake Multicultural Resource Center to learn about it, and they did offers in the community that is available. We continue to send our officers to the bias training, but they still have to go to work and answer the calls.”
Smith then talked about 21st century policing, where the community engages with law enforcement.
“The citizens become engaged in what the police is doing. To become an agent in change, you have to be a part of the change,” Smith said. “There are applications up here. You can become a part of the police department and help effect the change and the problems going on in society.”