A former Eastern Shore police chief says Maryland officials had all “pertinent” internal affairs files when they approved his department’s decision to hire a problem-plagued cop from Delaware now at the center of the Anton Black controversy.
But the state disagrees, saying the documents the local police shared with state officials reflected only “minor” personnel matters – and not potentially disqualifying information about the history of the Greensboro police officer, Thomas Webster IV.
The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services must certify every police officer hired by local police agencies after reviewing the officer’s application, along with the record and related paperwork submitted by the police department that wants to hire the officer. But community activists and civil rights groups on the Eastern Shore are suggesting that Webster – one of three police officers who took the 19-year-old teenager into custody shortly before he died last September – should never have been hired in the first place.
Greensboro’s former police chief, Michael Petyo, insisted Webster’s full materials were provided to the state.
“His internal affairs files were included” in the information the Greensboro Police Department turned over to the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions for review, Petyo said. “[Incidences] he was reprimanded for or received some type of punitive action [for] were reported. Even unfounded incidents were included.”
Petyo said the information included all “pertinent” disciplinary reports about Webster, who worked for the Dover, Del., Police Department. These included a suspension and probation for Webster that occurred before a high profile case in 2013, in which an African American male suspect who had been in the officer’s custody ended up with a broken jaw and concussion.
“Yes, that’s all included,” Petyo said.
The commission granted Webster permanent police powers with the Greensboro Police Department in May 2018 following a probationary period that began in January.
A spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Department, which oversees the commission, said the agency disputes Petyo’s contention that the state received adequate information about Webster.
“We saw them as minor documents that were not revelatory,” Public Safety Department spokesman Gerard Shields said. “They were minor personnel matters.”
‘We were not aware’
The Public Safety Department announced in early February it would review Petyo’s hiring of Webster after learning from Maryland Matters that 29 “use-of-force” documents were not included in Webster’s certification application.
These documents are meant to show all incidents involving a police officer’s use of force on suspects.
“The [Greensboro] police department stated that it did a thorough review of the officer’s background and found him to be in good standing,” Shields said. “We were not aware of the 29 use of force reports and want to review them.”
Shields said the reports from Dover should have been included in the cache of documents the Greensboro police turned over to the state agency.
Police officers are required to file use-of-force reports any time any level of force is used while apprehending a suspect. Examples include when an officer uses his fists or shoves a suspect, or when an officer uses pepper spray or a baton or a taser. The officer’s supervisor and others in a larger chain of command thoroughly review each report, said Dover Police Department spokesman Mstr. Cpl. Mark Hoffman.
Shields said the review of Petyo’s decision to hire Webster will begin after the Maryland State Police conclude an internal administrative investigation of Webster, which will determine whether he followed departmental policy during his pursuit of Black. Black, an African American Kent County teen, died Sept. 15 after being pursued by four white men: Webster, off-duty Ridgely Police Chief Gary Manos, Centreville Police Cpl. Dennis Lannon, and a white civilian.
Webster was banned from seeking employment as a law enforcement agent in Dover after he had been indicted in 2015 for the assault of an unarmed black man. The man suffered a broken jaw and became unconscious after Webster kicked him in the face, according to media reports. Webster was found not guilty by a jury, but Dover city officials decided to part ways with him anyway.
As part of the city’s separation agreement, Webster will receive $230,000 over a six-year period, according to the agreement. The man involved in the 2013 incident, Lateef Dickerson, was paid $300,000 to drop a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city, according to media reports.
Petyo said none of the use-of-force reports resulted in a complaint and argued that they did not need to be included among the information the town turned over to the state when he decided to hire Webster.
“You don’t include that stuff [anyway],” Petyo said. “If I were to include that, I’d have to include every single report he had written in his whole career.”
According to a Delaware news report, however, seven early warning “activation reports” were triggered against Webster based on his accumulated use-of-force reports.
The early warning reports – also known as PEWs (Personal Early Warning) – signal when an officer may be having trouble on the job.
“It is not uncommon to see a proactive police officer be put on PEWs,” Hoffman said. “If an officer is in a certain unit like drugs or street crimes, they are going after the worst of the worst.”
Shields said Petyo submitted the following documentation for Webster’s police certification application:
-The two-page Application For Certification;
-A letter from Petyo summarizing his review of Webster’s Dover Police Department personnel file with documentation on four matters; and,
-An email from Petyo summarizing Webster’s actions during the August 2013 Dover incident, which concluded that Webster was cleared of any policy violation.
“We rely on the police agency to inform us of the certification eligibility of the officer,” Shields said. “We were not aware of the 29 use of force reports and want to review them.”
It is unknown which incidents were included in Petyo’s documentation, but two Associated Press articles shed some light on the possibilities.
According to a 2015 AP report, in 2006 Webster punched a suspect in the face while he was trying to handcuff him. A vehicle pursuit involving the man resulted in a police officer’s car flipping over and colliding with Webster’s patrol car.
In 2010, Webster was hit in the chest by a drunk driving suspect who became combative at a hospital when his blood was being drawn. Webster hit the man twice in the face, breaking his nose.
Also in 2010, Webster used a stun gun on a man suspected of loitering then struck him four times in the face as he resisted being handcuffed.
Another AP report details an incident in which Webster was suspended after driving two intoxicated men to a remote area several miles away from Dover and stranding them there. One of the men initially requested medical attention and had to be taken to the hospital after Maryland State Police found them.
Webster’s court records have since been expunged. A request from Maryland Matters for the certification application documentation is pending. Delaware law enforcement officials – including the State’s Attorney’s Office and the Dover Police Department – are forbidden to discuss Webster’s personnel background.
Shields said the police commission is anxious to review Webster’s use-of-force reports and the entire certification process, “to determine if there is information not provided by the police department to determine where there are any disqualifying factors.”
Petyo said he conducted the appropriate background checks for Webster, even driving to the area where Webster had patrolled to interview residents. All gave positive references, he said.
However, Petyo wouldn’t confirm allegations from the Black family that he had no references in writing for the certification application he completed.
Shields said decertification for Webster could be recommended at the next Maryland Police and Training Standards Commission meeting April 10. While the meeting is open to the public, some portions of it may be held in closed session.
Glynis Kazanjian is a freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected]