As Police Reform Takes Center Stage, Anton Black’s Family Waits for Justice

Nijah Black, the late Anton Black's niece, leads a Black Lives Matter protest in his honor in Chestertown on June 7. Photo by Ashten Hinefelt

The similarities in the officer-involved deaths of Maryland teen Anton Black, in 2018, and George Floyd, three weeks ago, are striking.

Both African American males died pinned to the ground, face-down, held by police officers. Their every movement was restricted by handcuffs and the weight of the police officers who were restraining them.

Floyd famously said, “I can’t breathe,” begging and pleading for air, as the knee of a Minneapolis police officer remained wedged on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Black complained of shortness of breath after he was handcuffed, according to a medical report in the Maryland State Police investigative file.

After arriving on the scene, paramedics instructed the senior officer on the scene in Minneapolis to remove his knee, according to media reports.

Officers in Greensboro, Md., can be heard on the 2018 police body camera footage telling the burly police chief from Ridgely, Gary Manos, to “roll over, Chief” and “roll to your side” as he lay across Black’s 160-pound frame. Moments earlier, Black can be heard gasping for air as Manos pushed him up against his mother’s trailer.

During their entanglements with police, Floyd and Black both lost consciousness and went into cardiac arrest — and neither lived to talk about it.

The four officers involved in Floyd’s case were charged within a week of his May 25 death, while an investigation of the three officers involved in Black’s case concluded there was no wrongdoing.

Floyd’s death was captured on the cell phone of a bystander; Black’s on a police-worn body camera.

The cell phone footage of Floyd’s death went viral on the Internet. Protests in Minneapolis resembling those in Baltimore, following the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s officer-involved death in 2015, lasted for days before prosecutors filed any charges.

The body camera video in Black’s death was released to the public four months after the teen died — when Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) intervened.

Derek Chauvin, the senior officer on the scene in Minneapolis, was charged with second-degree murder.

Black’s family is still waiting for justice.

On June 7, Black’s family, friends and supporters took to the streets of Chestertown, a quiet rural town on the Eastern Shore, to peacefully protest.

“We want justice too,” Black’s sister La Toya Holley said in an interview with Maryland Matters. “We want everyone who was involved in my brother’s murder held accountable — just like all the officers in George Floyd’s case have been charged. We want the same for Anton.”

The Black family hopes public pressure witnessed by hundreds of thousands of protesters across the country following Floyd’s death will prompt Maryland lawmakers to act in the next legislative session.

A police reform bill named after Black, Anton’s Law, died in committee in the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions.

Hogan has signaled he is open to police reform — if a bill can make it to his desk.

“Since taking office, Governor Hogan has signed several police accountability bills into law and has said he is willing to consider any legislation that comes to his desk in the next session,” said a spokeswoman, Shareese Churchill.

Holley said there are a number of circumstances that contributed to her brother’s death that should be addressed by changes in state policing laws. And lawmakers are now showing signs they may support some of the measures the family is seeking.

“There were a lot of mistakes made, a lot of cover up,” Holley said.

Specifically, the family questions how a police officer with a tainted background from another state was ever allowed to work as a law enforcement officer in Maryland.

They also want to know why de-escalating tactics were not used when police guidelines called for them, and how a white civilian was empowered to pursue Black on a motorcycle and then permitted to assist police in holding him down while he was handcuffed and shackled.

Holley said Caroline County State’s Attorney Joe Riley (R) should be investigated for misconduct following allegations of body camera footage tampering. She also wonders why a grand jury was not called to have a set of independent eyes investigate policing practices that led to a Black teen’s death and, the family believes, a possible police cover-up.

“They all need to be held responsible, no one’s exempt,” Holley said emotionally. “We want every single officer, and the civilian who should not have been involved, to go to jail. We want them to serve time.”

Lawmakers poised for change

According to a 2015 ACLU study, 69% — or 75 — of the 109 people who died in police encounters in Maryland between 2010-2014 were black. Blacks then made up 29% of Maryland’s population, the study states.

“Five Black people died for every White person who died, when the size of the Black and White populations were taken into account,” according to the ACLU study.

In the past few years, bills in the Democratic-led Maryland General Assembly calling for independent police misconduct investigations and for personnel records and investigative reports to be made available to the public — have stalled.

But legislative leaders are starting to focus on police accountability.

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), the first woman and first African American to serve in that role, announced the formation of a police accountability workgroup in late May, days after Floyd’s death. Earlier this month, Sen. William C. Smith Jr. (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, announced a package of police reform bills he plans to introduce next session.

“What’s good about this situation right now is absolutely the winds of change are blowing,” said House Majority Leader Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery).

But Luedtke didn’t discount policy changes made in 2016 following Gray’s death when a public safety and policing omnibus bill created The Police Training and Standards Commission — established to improve the training of law enforcement officers, develop recommended use-of-force guidelines, and more.

“That bill, while not enough and certainly only one step, was significant,” Luedtke said.

The House workgroup is scheduled to hold its first meeting next week, and Smith said he hopes to “kickstart the legislative process” and convene his committee’s hearings on policing later this year.

“It’s not only to let everyone know that I’m committed to this, it’s not just political talk, but also to lay out why it’s important for my colleagues who are going to be on the fence on a lot of these issues,” Smith said. “What I’m using this time to do is build that case and to garner public support well ahead of session, so we have the opportunity to have really good discussions . . . so we can really push things through. That’s the goal, and it’s something I fully intend to see through.”

Among his priorities, Smith is calling for an independent investigative body to handle police misconduct cases. Under current state law, police agencies are empowered to investigate their own alleged misconduct. The governor may also ask the attorney general to conduct an investigation within certain limitations.

“In terms of what an independent review would look like, it could be handled by the attorney general without having to be required by the governor, or probably a more elegant solution is akin to a special prosecutor or the Maryland State Prosecutor,” Smith said. “The office is already well positioned to do this type of investigation. That’s probably what I’m going to end up drafting.”

State Prosecutor Charlton Howard III, a relatively new appointee of Hogan’s, said he fully supports Smith’s proposal to have his office handle police misconduct cases.

“If there is an independent state agency conducting the reviews and prosecuting, that responsibility should reside with us,” Howard said. “We are already an independent state agency investigating and prosecuting other types of police misconduct and official misconduct and public corruption generally.”

Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, a Democrat, did not seem as eager to take on the responsibility when asked if he supports the concept.

“That would involve a much larger discussion, resources, changes in authority/statute, etc,” Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman from the Office of the Attorney General said. Instead, Frosh and other state attorneys general are seeking authority from Congress to investigate “patterns of unconstitutional policing.”

A spokesman from The Maryland Chiefs of Police Association said they support the idea of independent investigations.

“Yes, we would absolutely be supportive of that solution,” said John Nesky, chief of the Bowie Police Department and 2nd vice president of the Maryland Police Chiefs association.

More reform policies that link to Black’s case

Howard recently prosecuted former Greensboro Police Chief Mike Petyo for falsifying the hiring application of the Greensboro police officer, Thomas Webster IV, who was first to respond in Black’s case.

Webster, like Chauvin in Floyd’s case, had racked up a large number of use-of-force reports as a police officer in Dover, Del.

Holley, Anton Black’s sister, said legislative changes should include the public’s right to have access to a police officer’s use-of-force records, which could show an excessive history in the officer’s past.

“We definitely want the excessive use of force records to be available for individuals — upon request,” Holley said. “That’s when they should be available, when there is shown to be a need for those records.”

Smith said he favors legislation that would allow for complaint reports against police officers to be available through a public information request, and, among other things, would require an annual report of use-of-force complaints to the General Assembly.

Former Prince George’s County internal affairs police officer Joe Perez said all information about a police officer’s professional history should be available to the public and the communities they serve.

“Legislators have to make all police internal affairs investigations records available to the public — all of them, not just specific categories,” Perez said.

Perez said all investigatory evidence, including body camera footage, should be made available at the beginning and end of an investigation into police misconduct.

“After the department has a chance to review it, it should be made available to the public,” Perez said of the body camera footage. “Because as soon as they see any video, especially if it’s going to be controversial, they look at it over and over and over and over. They come up with a game plan, what the explanation is going to be. They make a lot of decisions based on that video, and it’s usually all of the top ranking people with the chief looking at it, the county or city attorney. They’re all in the room watching the video. If they game plan together, look at all the evidence, they should come clean with the public.”

Legislation attempting to lift the “personnel” status that shields law enforcement from releasing information on complaints and investigations has failed in the past. And law enforcement unions are expected to continue to push back against new efforts.

Smith’s reform proposals also include adjusting insurance liability caps for acts of violence by police, which officers in Black’s case reportedly talked about the night of the death. According to the owner of the trailer park where Black’s mother lived and Black died, one officer told a group of other cops that night that whatever the outcome of the investigation, it would be OK because “insurance would pay for it.”

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) said he will support Smith’s initiatives.

“I have tremendous faith in Senator Smith and his proposed package and plan to fully support the legislation he passes through his committee,” Ferguson said.

Luedtke is cautiously optimistic.

“Between the House’s commitment and Sen. Smith’s commitment, I’m hopeful Sen. Smith will be able to convince his Senate colleagues and that the governor will sign comprehensive policing reform . . . There are 46 other senators. I’m hopeful this will not just be the House and Sen. Smith.”

Independent probe may have been fruitful in Black’s case

Given what happened in the aftermath of Black’s death, would an independent investigation have produced a different result?

Reporting by Maryland Matters, over a period of several months, shows holes and discrepancies in the state police investigation that have not been addressed by authorities.

Riley, the Caroline County State’s Attorney, declined to empanel a grand jury following a months-long investigation conducted by the Maryland State Police. Riley cleared all of the involved officers, and nothing in the case changed — even after Black’s legal team and family accused the county’s top law enforcement officer, along with two officers involved in Black’s pursuit, of tampering with the video footage from the responding officer’s body-worn camera.

A potentially key witness in the case — Gary Wyatt, the owner of the trailer park where Black died, said he was never interviewed by the state police. Wyatt said in an interview with Maryland Matters he heard and saw almost everything that went on that night.

The state police also declined to interview paramedics who transported Black to the hospital about a shortness of breath complaint. The attending physician at Easton Memorial Hospital when Black was admitted to the emergency room, noted on a medical record that Black complained of shortness of breath after he was handcuffed. The source of the complaint was “EMS.”

Emergency services personnel had direct contact with hospital personnel and law enforcement agents on the scene who interacted with and treated Black before he died.

Holley said she finds it strange that the driver of the ambulance, Frank Starkey, who transported Black, was the relative of one of the men on the scene, Shawn Starkey.

Shawn Starkey, an off-duty fire captain, voluntarily responded to the initial stop scene from a grocery store across the street, according to Holley.

Although footage of the encounter captured by a Save-A-Lot grocery store camera was never entered as evidence in the police investigation, last year a manager at Save-A-Lot told Maryland Matters he handed the video footage over to state police investigators and Black’s legal team. A spokesman from the state police said they have no record of ever receiving the video.

“I find it very troubling that [Shawn Starkey’s] brother was the driver of the ambulance,” Holley said. “You have one man who’s right there physically involved in keeping my brother in a position where he’s unable to breath and ultimately dies, and then your brother is driving him to the hospital. This is a conflict of interest. It’s odd to me and very strange.”

On Sunday, members of Black’s family walked quietly down the main street in Chestertown, where he grew up and went to school. Like thousands of other protesters in the country, they are waiting and want closure for his death.

“I don’t understand why he did not convene a grand,” Holley said of Riley, the state’s attorney. “The incident caused my brother to lose his life.”

Glynis Kazanjian is a freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected]