The Spy recently posted an article about the settlement between the family of Anton Black and three local municipalities Greensboro, Ridgely, and Centreville. Anton Black was a handsome, athletic, and charismatic 19-year-old African American man who died in 2018 while police were shackling him.
On September 15, 2018, a couple observed two boys roughhousing. Unaware that the two were lifelong friends and fearing for the younger boy’s safety, they called the police. Black was holding the victim in a headlock and the victim feared that Black would throw him into the river. When the Greensboro policeman, Thomas Webster, arrived, he questioned Black. Black replied, “I love you,” and ran home. The victim was angry about Black’s behavior and told the officer that Black was schizophrenic. (In fact, Black had been recently diagnosed as bi-polar and not schizophrenic.)
That is when things began to escalate.
After Black took off, Thomas Webster, two off-duty policemen from neighboring towns, and a civilian motorcyclists (all white) began chasing Black.
The escalation continued.
They found Black at his home inside the family car. Without saying a word, Webster smashed the car window and attempted to tase Black.
The escalation continued.
Black got out of the car, and ran toward his house, just a few feet away. A scuffle between Black and the others began.
The escalation was out of control.
A six minute struggle ensued. For several minutes after Anton was handcuffed, one off-duty officer laid on top of Black and held him down with his face on the ground and his legs bent back towards the sky. Black struggled to breathe, eventually lost consciousness, and died. Throughout the ordeal, a terrified Anton Black cried for his mother who was on the steps and pleaded with police.
The Maryland State Medical Examiner, Dr. David Fowler (more about him later), determined that a previously undiagnosed heart condition and bi-polar disease was the cause of death and pronounced the manner of death “accidental.”
The Maryland State Police investigated the incident.
After reviewing the results from the inquiry and the cause of death, the Caroline County prosecutor elected not to present the case to the grand jury.
It is important to understand what Black was not. He was not armed. He did not commit a crime. He was not a criminal. He did not aggressively attack police. In fact, he ran home, chased by a policeman and three large white male civilians, one sporting a confederate flag decal on his motorcycle helmet.
But he was African American, and Black would become one of 31 people to die in Maryland in an officer-involved incident in 2018.
The Black family pressed for more information about Anton’s death.
But it was not forthcoming until Gov Hogan intervened and demanded that the Medical Examiner release his findings and that Greensboro release the body cam footage.
Greensboro complied, however, there is controversy about the released video. The Black family’s attorneys and the NAACP have evidence suggesting that the body cam footage was edited.
While reviewing the investigation report, Black’s attorneys discovered that the investigation into Black’s death was inexplicably incomplete. Key witnesses such as the trailer park owner who witnessed the entire incident, EMTs, and others were not interviewed. According to Maryland Matters, a former internal affairs police captain indicated that standard procedure is to interview all witnesses.
The released police body cam footage makes it clear that the weight of the off-duty officer lying prone on Black’s body was excessive. Several times another participant asked the officer to get off. The autopsy identified 34 separate injuries and hemorrhaging in the eyes (which is an indicator of asphyxiation).
Based on a review of the autopsy report, a Johns Hopkins cardiologist and a former Chief Medical Examiner for Washington DC concluded that the manner of death was positional asphyxia, and the cause of death was homicide. In addition, they noted that adding bipolar disease as a contributing factor was “head scratching.”
Unlike Derek Chauvin, Thomas Webster did not appear malicious, he told the mother that Anton was not being arrested. Webster just made poor decisions each resulting in a dangerous escalation. His poor decisions continued at his hearing, rather than express regret over the death, he praised the civilians who came to his aid. Without them he believed that it wouldn’t have ended so “safely.” Huh? Anton Black’s death was a safe resolution? How much danger could a younger, smaller, unarmed black man running home to his mother pose?
I have a question for any attorneys who might be reading this column. How is it legal that a larger, middle-aged white civilian on a motorcycle who is wearing a racist decal be allowed to chase down a young, unarmed black man running home (assisting the police)? It certainly smacks of the bad old days when black men were chased down, punished, and sometimes lynched by white racist posses.
But Black’s death is in the middle of this story.
To tell the whole story, we need to go back before this tragedy. Greensboro is small town with fewer than 2,000 people and three police officers. Before this incident, the police chief was Jeff Jackson, who practiced community policing. During his tenure, residents felt that this town was peaceful with racial harmony.
But the newly elected mayor believed that Greensboro’s policing was too lax. He fired Jackson and appointed Michael Petyo, who believed in a more aggressive form of enforcement. Petyo immediately hired Thomas Webster.
Webster was a controversial choice. He was a former policeman in Delaware who had 32 incidents of excessive force (26 with African Americans). He was captured on video brutally kicking a man and breaking his jaw, despite the man being on all fours. Inexplicably, he was acquitted, but as part of a settlement, he was prohibited from being a police officer in Delaware.
Over NCAAP and community protests, Thomas Webster was hired.
Anton Black died 7 months later.
And there is another “wrinkle” in this case. Dr. Fowler, the retired Maryland medical examiner who determined the manner of death was “accidental,” testified for the defense in the George Floyd trial. Fowler testified that the manner of death should have been “undetermined” instead of “homicide.”
Experts in the field were so outraged by Fowler’s testimony that over 400 medical professionals signed a letter demanding the Attorney General and Governor Hogan investigate Fowler’s findings on all in-custody and suspicious deaths.
After things went so wrong, things started to go right.
Within hours of receiving the letter from the experts, Attorney General Brian Frosh and Gov. Larry Hogan demanded a review of 1400 in-custody deaths during Fowler’s 17-year tenure.
After the body cam footage was released, Greensboro commissioners put Thomas Webster on administrative leave. The Maryland State Police reviewed Webster’s credentials and deemed him unfit to be a police officer in the state of Maryland.
Over Hogan’s veto, in 2021 the Maryland state legislature passed police overhauls that repealed the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights and changed the rules regarding use of force. A special provision, named after Black, required that officer histories be available to the public. The bill also set up an independent unit within the state Attorney General’s Office to investigate police-involved civilian deaths. The bill limited no-knock warrants, required body cams for most officers, and forbade the purchase of dangerous surplus military equipment such as weaponized drones, silencers, and grenade launchers.
Former Greensboro police chief Michael Petyo, who concealed Webster’s history when he applied to the Maryland State Police for certification, pleaded guilty in January 2020 to one count of criminal misconduct and was sentenced to three years’ probation.
The mayor of Greensboro regrets what happened and takes responsibility for hiring Petyo and Webster.
The Black family recently settled their wrongful death lawsuit against Greensboro, Ridgely, and Centreville (the off-duty officers were from the latter two municipalities). The towns agreed to a new use-of-force policy that prohibits officers from restraining a suspect in the prone position, more transparency with hiring, and more police training for: interventions, implicit bias, de-escalation, and the mentally ill. The family also received $5 million.
But it never should have happened.
In an interview with Dateline, Jeff Jackson, the former Greensboro police chief described how this scenario would have played out under his Community Policing model.
First, his priority would have been for the victim. He would have talked to the victim, determined if there were injuries requiring attention, and taken the victim to his home (Webster and his posse ignored the victim who ran off). As part of his Community Policing model, Jackson knew both victims and their families. He knew Black, he knew his mom, and he knew where they lived. He knew Black was not dangerous and assumed that Black would run home. So, after things had cooled down, he would have gone to Black’s home to discuss the incident. He would have talked to Anton and his mother and evaluated the incident and determined what needed to be done. His philosophy was always de-escalation.
And Anton Black would be alive today.
And that is another tragedy. We don’t know about all of the deaths and injuries that have been prevented by competent and caring officers. We only know about the mistakes, the bad cops. A police officer who knows the community and finds a way to de-escalate and calmly respond to a dangerous situation (such as a domestic dispute) is an unsung superhero.
So, we have the good: Gov Hogan and Frosh demanding transparency, the Black family whose goal is to make policing safer, the mayor apologizing, and holding the Greensboro Police chief accountable.
We have the bad: policeman who do not know how to de-escalate, civilians and off-duty officers chasing an unarmed young black man, the Greensboro Police chief who was willing to put the community in danger to give a dangerous policeman a second chance, an incomplete investigation by the Maryland State Police, and a potentially biased medical examiner.
And we have the tragic. The death of a promising young man.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.