The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has opened an investigation into the hiring of a Greensboro police officer involved in the deadly pursuit of an African-American teen on the Eastern Shore last fall, Maryland Matters has learned.
An agency spokesman said the investigation was launched after Public Safety officials learned Thursday that some of the officer’s past personnel records were not included in a certification application submitted by the Greensboro Police Department when it hired Thomas Webster IV last April.
The Police Training and Standards Commission could consider decertifying Webster, Public Safety Department spokesman Gerard Shields said Friday. Greensboro Police Chief Michael Petyo resigned in January, following controversy over the death of 19-year-old Anton Black in the department’s custody last September.
Shields said the Greensboro police application for permission to hire Webster, a former police officer in Dover, Del., included information from a 2015 trial where Webster was acquitted of assault charges following a 2013 incident in which Webster kicked an African-American man in the head during an arrest. But no other information related to any past personnel infractions was offered.
“The Delaware court decision finding Officer Webster not guilty was on the application of certification,” Shields said. “The other information on any infractions or reports about Webster in Delaware were not. As a result, our agency will begin reviewing that information. No action will be taken until the State Police investigation concludes.”
Shields said the agency will ask the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission when it meets in April if it wants to begin a decertification process in this case.
A Jan. 30 Maryland Matters op-ed written by attorney David Plymyer highlights a significant history of past disciplinary charges against Webster drawn from court documents. According to Plymyer, by the time Webster was indicted in 2015 there were 29 “use of force” reports in his personnel file.
A 2006 performance evaluation stated Webster should have used “lesser degrees of force” and that “he has been spoken to regarding this issue,” Plymyer wrote.
Webster’s history was also reported in a Nov. 24, 2015 Wilmington News Journal article.
In Maryland, a two-page application to be completed by a hiring police agency requires “a brief explanation” of the circumstances surrounding the departure of an officer from a previous police department, as well as “full detail” maintained in the applying agency’s background investigation file. Another section in the form states the applying officer is “Mentally fit” to perform duties.
Black died Sept. 15 after being pursued by three white police officers and a white civilian following a 911 call reporting Black was dragging a 12-year-old boy down Greensboro Road against his will. The 12-year-old boy’s father said his son was scared and felt threatened at the time of the incident.
In a brief pursuit that led back to Black’s front yard, the officers and civilian struggled with Black to get him into handcuffs and ankle shackles on a ramp leading to his front door.
Webster was the first officer to respond to the scene. He received back-up assistance from two neighboring police officers from the Ridgely and Centreville Police departments. After a brief pursuit, the officers found Black hiding inside a family car in his front yard. Webster smashed a car door window with his baton and then attempted to use a taser on Black, which was unsuccessful.
Webster said on a police-issued body camera he wore during the incident that Black was likely a schizophrenic and possibly on drugs.
Maryland Chief Medical Examiner David Fowler reported Jan. 24 that sudden cardiac arrest was the cause of Black’s death due to an underlying heart condition. Fowler also said a diagnosis of bipolar disorder played a large part in his death, and that it was also likely the struggle with police contributed to Black’s death. He said Black’s death is best certified as an accident.
Four months after Black’s death, Greensboro Police placed Webster on paid administrative leave following pressure from the community. Town officials also agreed to schedule diversity training for their police force and to revisit the possibility of establishing a citizen’s review board, where complaints or concerns about police can be heard. The two assisting officers, Ridgely Police Chief Gary Manos and Centreville Police Cpl. Dennis Lannon were not placed on leave.
The top prosecutor in Caroline County said Jan. 24 he would not seek an indictment against any of the three police officers involved in the pursuit of Black.
“There is no intention to place this matter before them at this time,” Caroline County State’s Attorney Joseph Riley (R) said. “The Office of the State’s Attorney for Caroline County remains committed to following the evidence in this matter wherever it leads and will evaluate all evidence that is shared.”
The ACLU of Maryland and a support group, Coalition for Justice for Anton Black, have called for an independent investigation by the State Prosecutor’s Office or the U.S. Department of Justice.
In an interview Thursday, State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt, whose office prosecutes government and political corruption cases, said his agency does not have the authority to conduct an investigation.
The U.S Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment – and neither did the Black family.
Jeannette DeLude, the Greensboro town manager, said officials were unaware of any state investigation.
“The Town of Greensboro has not been made aware of any inquiry regarding any officer’s certification by either the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services or the Maryland Police & Correctional Training Commission,” she said. “If that were to occur, which again, it has not, we would fully cooperate with the inquiry.”
Glynis Kazanjian is a freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected]