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A lawsuit filed in federal court Jan. 20 alleges a conspiracy of racial discrimination and retaliation against African-American police officers in a community on Maryland’s Eastern Shore reminiscent of the heyday of Jim Crow segregation.

The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the ACLU of Maryland partnered with the Wiley Rein law firm to file the complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland. It accuses White officials in Worcester County and Pocomoke City—including Pocomoke City’s mayor, city manager and City Council; the Worcester County Sheriff’s Department and State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby; the Maryland State Police and other individual officers and officials—of participating in racist behavior against the officers or condoning it, and punishing the officers when they complained to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“This is one of the saddest and most shocking cases this court is likely to address,” the lawsuit stated. “Three African American police officers, working for Pocomoke City, Maryland, experienced racial discrimination in employment and retaliation for the exercise of their federal civil rights in a manner that most Americans would have believed unthinkable in the second decade of the 21st Century.”

Pocomoke City’s first African-American chief of police, Kelvin Sewell, (Photo: Pocomoke City Police Department Press Release)

The plaintiffs include Pocomoke City’s first African-American chief of police, Kelvin Sewell, former Pocomoke City detective Franklin Savage and police officer Lynell Green.

According to the complaint, in the more than two years Savage worked on the Worcester County Criminal Enforcement Team—a regional drug task force in which he was the only Black member—his teammates subjected him to racial epithets and other forms of racial harassment and discrimination, including discussions about the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings in his presence, an on-duty side trip to a so-called “KKK Lane” and placing a fake food stamp in his desk drawer on which a picture of President Obama had been superimposed.

When Savage complained about the harassment, he was summarily demoted then railroaded off the force, the lawsuit contends.

“In 30 years of practice as a prosecutor and private litigator, this is simply the worst case of racial discrimination and harassment I have ever seen,” said Andrew G. McBride, chair of Wiley Rein’s Communications Appellate & Litigation Practice, and lead counsel for the plaintiffs.

The other two plaintiffs were swept up in the backlash against Savage, their attorneys claim. Sewell, a popular figure in the community, was dismissed on July 1 because he refused to fire Officer Savage and Officer Green. Green’s support for Savage has resulted in restricted pay and other acts of retaliation.

“The cavalier attitude of so many people in power toward our plaintiffs’ Constitutional and statutory rights demonstrates that much work still needs to be done to address the widespread racial injustice that still exists in America, a half a century after race discrimination was outlawed in employment,” said Dennis A. Corkery, senior staff attorney with the WLC and plaintiffs’ co-counsel.

Sewell’s termination prompted public outrage, with residents picketing and demanding answers of the Pocomoke City Council. Sewell had cleared the streets of drug dealers and reduced serious crimes, in addition to fostering community policing and better relations between residents and officers, supporters said, according to The Washington Post.

City officials deny any discrimination against the African-American officers. Pocomoke City Attorney William Hudson told the Post in July, “We deny there was impropriety whatsoever on the part of the city, the former city manager, as well as the mayor and the council.”

However, the Eastern Shore—a former slave territory that sympathized with the South in the Civil War—has a long history of racial discord, including several lynchings and riots. Unfortunately, that struggle continues today, lawyers for the plaintiff said.

“Sadly, the struggle for racial justice in Worcester County has been a long one, with repeated attempts to deny the rights of Black residents in a way so extreme that it seems a throwback to earlier, segregationist times,” said Deborah A. Jeon, legal director of the ACLU of Maryland and plaintiffs’ co-counsel. “By standing up to the conspiracy of racial discrimination and retaliation that has played out in Pocomoke City over the last two years, we hope this lawsuit helps ensure that Worcester County’s White officials are called to account for the injustices they have perpetrated.”