In the tiny Eastern Shore town of Greensboro, Maryland, black residents protested the hiring last year of a white police officer from Delaware who in 2013 had been recorded on his dashcam kicking a black man in the jaw as he lay handcuffed on the ground. Despite a large turnout and opposition at a town meeting, the Greensboro Town Council ignored their concerns and put the officer on the four-man force.
A few months later, the residents’ worst fears seemed to be realised. Anton Black, a 19-year-old African-American, who was a former high school track and football star, budding actor and fashion model, died during an encounter with three white officers. One of them was Tom Webster IV, the new hire from Delaware.
At a Town Council meeting in Greensboro last week, an overflow crowd of concerned residents showed up again, this time seeking to break through a wall of silence that has surrounded the case since Anton’s death in September.
Greensboro police issued a news release after Anton’s death. It said police received a call about a man “dragging an unidentified 12-year-old down a street”. When police responded, Anton told police the two were brothers, the report states. Police later confirmed they were not brothers.
Anton ran from police, and after they caught up with him, the report says that police Tasered him after he bit two officers and struck another in the face.
Moments later, police say, Anton “began showing signs of medical distress. Officers administered Narcan and CPR. Anton later died at a nearby hospital”.
No police officer has been charged in connection with Anton’s death, and no cause of death has been determined.
Greensboro officials say that Maryland State Police are investigating and that the Caroline County state’s attorney will decide who or what was responsible for his death.
So far, there has not been a medical examiner’s report. At last week’s council meeting, Anton’s family asked why a report had not been completed in four months.
Police Chief Mike Petyo said such reports usually take about three months, but it might take longer because the medical examiner was handling an increase in homicides in Baltimore.
There have been no public updates or briefings on the investigation being conducted by the state police nor any new information provided to family members by the Caroline County state’s attorney.
There has been no explanation by Greensboro police why officers used Tasers and a chokehold. No explanation why the officers involved in Anton’s death are still on duty and not on administrative leave, as stipulated in the Greensboro police manual.
“We have no answers,” Greensboro Mayor Joe Noon told those gathered at the meeting. “We know as much as you do.”
Residents were incredulous, some moaning in disbelief. Then Petyo spoke. He had been an officer in Wyoming before being hired as chief in Greensboro last year. After refusing a request to use a microphone so those gathered in an overflow room could hear him, Petyo said: “We are as discouraged as you are.”
Robert Taylor, who had been Anton’s high school track coach, rose from his seat and responded with a sharp rebuke.
“We’ve come here in good faith, having shown patience and respect, and this is what we get from you? Cockiness? Arrogance? ‘I don’t want to use the mic.’ Why not?” Taylor asked.
“You serve the public; the public is supposed to hear what’s going on. You told me last year, ‘Rob, there is no way I’d hire anybody who’d be a danger to this community.’ And now there has been a loss of life.”
Greensboro is about a mile square and has 1,800 residents — 78 per cent white, 16 per cent black and a sprinkling of Hispanics and Asians. It was believed to be a neighbourly town. Everybody seemed to get along. Taylor, for instance, had been a schoolmate of Mayor Noon. Anton had been friendly with the town’s previous police chief. The young man had been studying criminal justice at a college in Delaware, trying to decide whether he wanted to be a police officer or stick with fashion modelling and acting.
Racial fissures over policing were believed to be a problem for the big cities, where blacks and whites live in separate worlds. But relationships between police and Greensboro’s black community have frayed since Anton’s death. Some say that hiring officers who are unfamiliar with the people they are serving is part of the problem; others say that law enforcement generally has come to reflect the coarser tone set by the nation’s top law enforcement officer, President Donald Trump.
Since Trump has taken office, black residents say, more and more Confederate flags have been seen flying on lawns in this predominantly Republican part of the state.
“People who used to speak all the time when they see you coming, now they turn and head in the opposite direction,” Taylor said.
Disappointed with a lack of answers from elected officials, Anton’s friends and family members have formed the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black.
“We are going to press on and not let stalling tactics deter us,” said LaToya Holley, Anton’s sister.
They have also hired an investigator, Trevor Hewitt, a former District of Columbia police officer.
According to Hewitt, the events began when a white woman saw Anton and a youth tussling near a bridge over the Choptank River at about 8pm on a Saturday night.
For some reason, he said, the woman reported it as a “kidnapping” in progress.
The boy turned out to be a close family friend. His father, who attended the Town Council meeting, told me: “It was just horseplay. They were like brothers. I don’t know how she got the idea that somebody was being kidnapped.”
According to Hewitt, a camera from a nearby business shows Anton and the youth walking together when Webster pulls up and calls them over to his patrol car. “I did not see Anton dragging anybody,” Hewitt said.
Hewitt and the attorney hired by Anton’s family, Renee Swafford, said they had seen the footage from Webster’s body cam, which had not been released to the public. Hewitt said the video showed Anton and the other boy talking briefly to Webster before both suddenly ran from the officer.
In 2013, Webster was indicted on second-degree assault charges after his dashcam video showed him kicking Lateef Dickerson in the jaw during an arrest. Three years ago, a Superior Court jury in Kent County, Delaware, found Webster not guilty. Webster resigned from the force three months later with a $230,000 severance package.
Dickerson received $300,000 from Dover to drop a federal civil rights lawsuit that he had filed against the city, according to the Wilmington News Journal, which filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get the details of the settlement.
While chasing Anton, Webster was joined by two off-duty officers from nearby jurisdictions, according to Greensboro police. Anton was found hiding in his father’s locked car, parked in front of his parents’ home.
Hewitt said the body cam shows Webster breaking the car window with his baton. As Anton scrambles out of the car, one of the off-duty officers grabs him around the neck, Hewitt said. Anton is eventually taken to the ground and held by the three officers.
His mother, Jennell Black, said she heard her son calling “help”. When she opened her front door, she saw the officers on top of him and noticed that his face was turning purple. “I said: ‘Why are you doing this to my son?’” she recalled. “They told me, ‘He tried to kidnap somebody.’ I said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, that is not right.’
“Then I saw Anton’s head drop, like he had passed out. And they started fumbling for keys to unlock the handcuffs and call 911.”
Anton was pronounced dead at a hospital in Easton.
Greensboro police said they could not discuss the video or details of the ongoing investigation. Maryland State Police officials said they would not comment until their inquiry was complete.
At the town meeting, Richard Potter, a leader of the justice coalition, read from the Greensboro police policy manual, which states that officers involved in shootings or deaths “shall be given reasonable paid administrative leave”.
Potter said: “We strongly encourage you to do this, based on your own laws.”
The council went into closed session to discuss whether to put Webster on leave. The town has no say on whether the two officers from the neighbouring jurisdiction remain on duty.
The residents left the building and stood outside in the cold for an hour and a half.
They were allowed back in to hear the decision: Webster would not be placed on administrative leave, the mayor announced. When asked about the deliberations, he said he could not discuss it.
• Courtland Milloy is a columnist for The Washington Post, where he has worked since 1975. He has covered crime and politics in the District of Columbia and demographic changes in Prince George’s County, Maryland. He has also written for the Post’s Style and Foreign sections