GREENSBORO, MD – Family members and the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black today announced resolution of the portion of their federal court litigation charging police and municipal officials with the unconstitutional killing of their beloved son in 2018. The landmark Black v. Webster settlement goes far beyond most in police killing cases in that it focuses as much on implementing reforms aimed at saving other families from future police violence as it does on providing monetary relief. This stems from the deep dedication of the Black family and the Coalition to demanding accountability for the officials responsible for Anton’s killing and its cover up, and to working for reforms that will help save other families from the horrible grief they still suffer.
Jennell Black, mother of Anton Black, said: “I had to watch those police officers kill my son, while he pleaded for his life and called out to me. There are no words to describe the immense hurt that I will always feel when I think back on that tragic day, when I think of my son. No family should have to go through what we went through. I hope the reforms within the police departments will save lives and prevent any family from feeling the pain we feel every day.”
Reforms required under the settlement include overhaul of Use of Force policies for three Eastern Shore municipalities, enhancement of resources for police confronting mental health emergencies, officer training in de-escalation, intervention and implicit bias, hiring transparency, and public complaint reporting. These changes build on several noteworthy reforms already achieved through advocacy by the family and the Coalition, including Maryland’s enactment of a statewide law bearing Anton’s name that opens disciplinary records in police misconduct cases, as well as investigations resulting in the criminal conviction for misconduct in office of one responsible police chief, and decertification from police work of another of the involved officers. In addition to these substantial reforms, the family with receive $5 million in monetary damages from the police and municipal defendants.
Another part of the case that remains in ongoing litigation involves allegations of conspiracy and cover up by the Office of the Maryland Medical Examiner and its now infamous former chief David Fowler.
Richard Potter, member of the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black, said: “The family and our coalition have worked tirelessly to bring accountability in Anton Black’s case and to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening in our community again. Today, we are hopeful that by reforming these local police departments, we will start to move a little closer in the right direction, away from white supremacy and closer to a nation of true equality and justice.”
The beginnings of what led to this day was an afternoon of September 15, 2018. White police officers from three different municipalities on Maryland’s Eastern Shore chased, tased, pinned, and ultimately, killed Anton Black on his mother’s front steps. Anton cried out to his mother as officers pressed down on his face, chest, and stomach for six minutes, causing him to die by positional asphyxiation, while his mother was held back, looking on in horror. In December 2020, Anton’s family and the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Baltimore, challenging Anton’s killing as discriminatory and unconstitutional, and charging an array of police, municipal and state officials both in taking part and in conspiring to cover up wrongful actions by police. Among those sued and now settling are decertified Officer Thomas Webster, who was hired by the Town of Greensboro despite community outcry about his long record of police abuse, and two Eastern Short police chiefs — one of whom, former Greensboro Chief Michael Petyo, later pled guilty to criminal misconduct related to the cover up. The Office of the Maryland Medical Examiner and medical examiners David Fowler and Russell Alexander are also defendants in the litigation, but are not parties to this settlement.
Rene' C. Swafford, Esq., said: “Police killings in Black communities must be put to an end. We will not tolerate such blatant racism and injustice. As we look towards the future, we hope that no other Black child or adult will have to fear the police or tragically be killed by one. Although the settlement’s reforms call for real change, real justice, and an end to police violence, the implementation of these reforms is crucial.”
The settlement will bring a series of reforms to the three local police departments involved in Anton’s death. A new model Use of Force Policy will be adopted by each of the three towns, which is focused on preventing deadly force. It further requires enhancement of resources available to police contending with mental health emergencies, such as that occurring in Anton’s case. Officers will also now be better trained to better handle situations involving people experiencing mental health emergencies. Additional trainings will be required to address de-escalation techniques officers should employ to prevent violence, bystander intervention requirements when faced with misconduct by other officers, and implicit bias. Moreover, hiring and reporting of information, like calls to Mental Health crisis or citizen complaints, will become more transparent. In addition, the federal court will retain jurisdiction to enforce this agreement. (A summary of all the reforms will be provided below.)
Deborah Jeon, Legal Director of the ACLU of Maryland, said: “Today marks a step forward on the path toward accountability for the police killing of Anton Black and toward a Maryland in which Black lives are valued and our system ensures against police brutality through training focused on service, equity, and swift accountability for those who abuse the power they are given.”
Beyond their work on the Black v. Webster lawsuit, Anton’s killing caused his family and the Coalition formed to support them to become deeply involved in Maryland’s campaign for police reform and accountability. Efforts by the family and the Coalition led to the Maryland General Assembly’s passage last year of Anton’s Law which brings more transparency to police discipline records, making them available to the community under Maryland’s Public Information Act. The family and Coalition also successfully pushed for state investigations leading to criminal prosecution and conviction of former Greensboro police chief Michael Petyo for covering up Thomas Webster’s past misconduct record, and decertification of Thomas Webster as a police officer anywhere in the State of Maryland. In addition, after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd and former Maryland Medical Examiner David Fowler testified in support of his killer, Derek Chauvin, the family and Coalition brought to light Fowler’s gross mishandling of medical records for Anton Black and other victims of deadly police violence in Maryland. This, in part, led to the Attorney General’s Office launching an investigation into the Medical Examiner’s Office under Fowler.
LaToya Holley, sister of Anton Black, said: “The reforms within the settlement give us some hope in our hearts that the changes made to these police departments will help prevent this tragedy for many other families. No one deserves to be killed like this. Anton Black did not deserve this. He will never be forgotten. He was such a sweet, nice, and loving person. There will always be a part of him in my heart.”
Anton Black’s family is represented by Rene' C. Swafford of Law Office of Rene' C. Swafford, LLC; Leslie D. Hershfield of Schulman, Hershfield & Gilden, P.A.; and Tomeka G. Church of The Law Office of Tomeka G. Church, LLC. The Coalition for Justice for Anton Black is represented by the ACLU of Maryland: Senior Staff Attorney Sonia Kumar, Legal Director Deborah Jeon, and Staff Attorney Tierney Peprah, with the support of Legal Advocacy Manager Gina Elleby and Legal Program Coordinator Jay Jimenez; John A. Freedman, Ryan D. Budhu, Joseph P. Klemme, Jayce Born, John F. Mezzanote, Jr., and Florence Bryan of Arnold & Porter.