White Officers, Local Officials and State Medical Examiner Colluded to Avoid Accountability
GREENSBORO, MD – After being chased, Tased, and pinned facedown by four white men, including a civilian wearing a Confederate motorcycle helmet, 19-year-old Anton Black pleaded “Mommy, help” and told his mother he loved her as the officers forced his slight frame down and pressed his face, chest, and stomach to the ground for six minutes, causing him to die by positional asphyxiation. The terrifying police killing of Anton in a small town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore on the afternoon of September 15, 2018, foreshadowed a similar horror experienced two years later by George Floyd, which sparked national outrage and fueled the movement to reimagine policing.
Today, Anton’s family and the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Baltimore, charging an unconstitutional police killing and a cover-up involving a decertified officer with a long record of abuse, two Eastern Shore police chiefs – one of whom has since pled guilty to criminal misconduct – three small towns, and the State Medical Examiner.
Said Antone Black, father of Anton Black: “I am devastated. I’m shook up every time I pass by where Anton lived. My son was the heart of our family. Anton had his whole life ahead of him. He was an athlete, a model, he was in college, and he dreamed of being an actor. They took all that away from him, from us, and it hurts me every day.”
Thomas Webster IV, who is white, was hired by Greensboro Police Chief Michael Petyo, also white, despite a documented history of violence and excessive force against Black residents. In fact, 19-year-old Anton Black had told his Mom he was worried about how Webster would treat community members. On September 15, 2018, Officer Webster, who knew that Anton was a high school athlete experiencing mental health issues, nonetheless aggressively confronted Anton while he was in the midst of a mental health crisis. Instead of trying to help Anton, Webster, along with several other white men, including Chief Gary Manos of the Ridgley Police Department and Officer Dennis Lannon of the Centreville Police Department, and a white civilian they inexplicably pulled in, violently escalated the situation, chasing Anton to his home, smashing a car window near his head, firing a TASER at him, and then forcing him to the ground, pinning his slight frame beneath the collective weight of their bodies.
For six minutes, and several minutes after Anton was handcuffed, Chief Manos, the other white officers, and the white civilian wearing a Confederate flag helmet held Anton down with his face down on the ground and his legs bent back towards the sky as he struggled to breathe, lost consciousness and died. Anton, while handcuffed and terrified, cried and pleaded with police to no avail. Anton eventually died from positional asphyxia, a well-known risk of the prolonged restraint used against him. As a result of the officers’ excessive force, racial bias, as well as Greensboro’s improper hiring, Petyo’s falsification of documents to secure certification of an unsuitable individual as a police officer, and the police departments’ failure to adequately screen, train, and supervise the officers, Anton was killed, while his mother was forced to witness her son’s death on the front porch of her home.
Said Jennell Black, mother of Anton Black: “The memory of Anton being murdered in front of me while he pleaded for his life was too much. I cry all the time. I had to pass by my son’s grave every day and I had to move away.”
Even more tragically, Black residents of Greensboro had objected to the hiring of Officer Webster precisely because of the risks he posed. At a March 1, 2018 Town Council meeting they told the Town Council that they were “worried about the message the town was sending . . . especially to people of color,” and asked if Webster’s hire indicated a shift to a more “militarized” style of policing. In fact, when he was employed by the Dover DE police department, Officer Webster’s brutal assault on Lateef Dickerson, who is Black, got national attention and eventually forced him out. Webster’s attack on Dickerson was only one of 29 use of force incidents filed against him there. Even still, the Town’s Commissioners, including Police Chief Petyo, responded that Officer Webster was “the strongest applicant” interviewed, and stated that he had passed all background checks and evaluations, and that the Town was “giving [Officer Webster] a second chance.” At that time, they assured residents the Town would take full responsibility for training Webster and for his actions. The town utterly failed to live up to that promise.
Said Richard Potter of the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black: “Again, this is another classic case of white supremacy at its best. Officer Webster gets a second chance at his career. Anton doesn’t get a second chance at life. No person is above the law and all those involved in this senseless death of this prominent young African American male should be brought to justice. Anton did not deserve to die in the manner that he did, however he did deserve to still be alive and enjoy those monumental experiences with his daughter, as well as being a student at Wesley College pursuing his degree in Criminal Justice. We as a coalition recognize that justice delayed is not justice denied.”
Even as Anton died, officers began rewriting the narrative of what happened, developing their false story that Anton was high on marijuana laced with stimulants and exhibiting “superhuman” strength and began feeding this story to other law enforcement officials and to media. Anton’s family and the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black were forced to battle public officials to gain basic access to the body camera footage of his death and to the autopsy findings—which were not released until Maryland Governor Larry Hogan personally intervened four months after Anton’s death.
Meanwhile, the State of Maryland again utterly failed Anton, his family and his community, when the Office of the Medical Examiner, relying in part on police narratives that minimized the nature and severity of police restraint of Anton, falsely claimed that Anton’s death was an accident resulting from natural causes. Bizarrely, the Medical Examiner contended that Anton’s bipolar disorder, a psychiatric illness, was a “significant” contributing cause of death, but not law enforcement officers’ brutal actions in chasing, Tasing, and pinning Anton down under hundreds of pounds of weight for six minutes until he lost consciousness and stopped breathing. As a direct result of these false conclusions, local officials successfully deflected accountability and Anton’s family and supporters have been forced to expend even more resources to find justice for him.
Said Ken Ravenell of Ravenell Law: “It is staggering how much was done wrong in this case that was improper, illegal, unethical and disgraceful. But today we took a bold step towards justice for Anton Black and against the police officers who took his life and also against those who were complicit in covering up the injustice. We are proud to have been chosen by Anton’s family to lead this fight and to partner with the ACLU of Maryland in this historic collaboration.”
Said René C. Swafford, Esq.: “What happened to Anton could happen to any Black child or adult. The implications of the action of the Medical Examiner are far reaching. Deliberately substituting what Anton died with, instead of what he died from, as his cause of death, sends the community an undeniable message that they won’t convict white officers that assault Black people. There was more public outcry over water bills than this life lost.”
Said Deborah Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland: “There must be justice for Anton Black. Whether it happens on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, in Baltimore or Minneapolis, we must put a stop to the brutal taking of Black lives by police, and do everything in our power to strip away and dismantle the structures of white supremacy that allow law enforcement to escape accountability and thwart justice time and again.”
Anton Black’s family is represented by Kenneth Ravenell, René C. Swafford, Leslie Hershfield, and Tomeka Church. The Coalition for Justice for Anton Black is represented by the ACLU of Maryland: Senior Staff Attorney Sonia Kumar and Legal Director Deborah Jeon, with the support of Intake & Investigations Manager Gina Elleby and Legal Program Associate Jay Jimenez.