Monday, February 11, 2019

Chief Kelvin Sewell: Looking beyond the Blue Wall of Silence

Personal experience and empirical data tell us that structural and individual racism pervade every aspect of American life. Yet many police departments operate behind a “Blue Wall of Silence,” pretending that discrimination and harassment do not exist within the force, rather than acknowledging the uncomfortable and incontrovertible reality.  As the leader of an organization made up of Officers of Color, I know this all too well.  We confront the Blue Wall on an almost daily basis, and we know what happens when officers who look like us dare to speak out.

When two Black officers at the Pocomoke City Police Department broke that Blue Wall by calling their chief’s attention to serious racial harassment they faced from white officers, and Chief Kelvin Sewell stood up for them, all three quickly became targets of retaliation. 

Despite his tremendous success as Pocomoke’s first Black police chief – doing the tough work of lowering the crime rate and improving relations with the community – Chief Sewell began experiencing intense harassment after he refused to reprimand the Black officers who filed complaints.  This harassment involved threats using racial slurs, the spreading of false rumors, and lobbying town officials to fire Chief Sewell and the other two officers.  Ultimately, this campaign succeeded, and all three Black officers were fired.  

But the harassment didn’t end there.  When the officers filed formal discrimination charges and a lawsuit, it got even worse -- even though the charges they made were sustained by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and joined by the U.S. Department of Justice.  Local law enforcement officials who were named in these charges enlisted the assistance of the Maryland State Prosecutor’s office.  

After a wide-ranging investigation into many baseless rumors, the State charged Sewell and one of the other Black officers with “misconduct” based on their discretionary handling of a car accident in which nobody was injured and driver’s insurance reimbursed the damage to the cars involved.  Officers – especially local police chiefs – are supposed to have broad discretion in their handling of such cases. But Officers of Color like Chief Sewell are not afforded the same benefit of the doubt in their decisions as white officers, especially when they have spoken out against racism.

Thankfully, Chief Sewell was vindicated in November 2018, when the Maryland Court of Special Appeals safeguarded his right to a fair trial by overturning his wrongful conviction for his judgment call on this incident .  The appeals court found that the lower court had wrongfully rejected testimony by two of Chief Sewell’s expert witnesses, which prevented him from getting the fair trial he was entitled to. The conviction was reversed, but the Court remanded the case, leaving open the possibility of a new trial.

To us, it is an indefensible waste of public resources to prosecute – and now attempt to retry – a highly-respected, history-making Black police official like Chief Sewell over this petty disagreement in judgment, when we know there is so much evidence of real and egregious acts of police corruption in Maryland. 

The type of discriminatory retaliation which Chief Sewell has endured for breaking the Blue Wall is typical of the unfair treatment faced by Officers of Color in internal investigations.  When a minority officer commits a minor infraction, the department turns over every rock, digging until it can find something to use against them – even if, as in Chief Sewell’s case, it doesn’t quite fit the charge. Sometimes it seems like white police leaders sit waiting for a minority officer to misstep, ready to turn around the minute it happens and position that person as the bad guy. Yet when white officers commit a similar – or even more egregious – act, the department looks the other way, allowing them to get away with it. They forget to interview witnesses, time is allowed to lapse, and steps are even taken to conceal the evidence.

Instances of internal corruption like these are far more deserving of the State Prosecutor’s focus than the petty charges against Chief Sewell.  Last month, my police colleagues and I in Prince George’s County filed a lawsuit challenging years of egregious race-based discrimination and retaliation both within our department and against the community we are sworn to serve. 

Months before we even filed this lawsuit, we sought the assistance of the State Prosecutor’s office to investigate criminal misconduct and corruption we had witnessed at the highest levels of our county’s police department.  But we were unable to get any response or call back from State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt. Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department and local news agencies have reported extensively on police abuse of force and corruption in Maryland. 

Why does the Maryland State Prosecutor insist on looking the other way, still unable to see beyond the Blue Wall? 

1 See New York Times, “Lawsuit: Police Chief Condones White Officers' Racism, Abuse,”
2 (see U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Civil Rights Div., Investigation of the Baltimore City Police Dep’t

Joe Perez, President
Hispanic National Law Enforcement Association NCR
P.O. Box 766, Cheltenham MD 20623 240-244-9189

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