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Commentary: Maryland town puts an officer on leave after the death of a 19-year-old man, but few are satisfied

Commentary: Maryland town puts an officer on leave after the death of a 19-year-old man, but few are satisfied
Katyra Boyce worries how she will explain the death of her daughter's father, Anton Black. (Priciliana Hernandez for The Washington Post)

Katyra Boyce was at a town council meeting in Greensboro in Caroline County last week, holding her 2-month-old daughter. The infant’s father, Anton Black, had died during an encounter with police in September. Boyce, along with about 50 others, had showed up seeking justice.

Among their demands: Place the officers involved in Black’s death on administrative leave. There had been three — Greensboro police officer Thomas W. Webster IV and two off-duty officers from other jurisdictions. The Greensboro Town Council had voted two weeks ago to keep Webster on patrol.

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A firestorm of criticism ensued.

“I live in this town, and sometimes I’ll see him [Webster] at the store, or I’ll see him where Anton died,” Boyce told me. “Every time I see him on the street, it’s like a slap in the face.”

At last week’s council meeting, Greensboro Mayor Joseph Noon emerged from an hour-and-a-half-long closed-door session with other elected officials and made an announcement.

“We did come up with some solutions,” he told the packed town hall.

The five-member council then voted to reverse itself and place Webster on administrative leave with pay. They also agreed to create a civilian review board to monitor police behavior and begin diversity training for the town’s four-person police force.

Webster is white. The young man who died during the encounter with Webster and the other officers was black.

Some in the audience cheered. One resident exclaimed, “Thank God.”

Boyce, 24, was more subdued. Her thoughts were on the baby in her arms, a girl named Winter.

“Anton had asked me to marry him, and I jokingly told him that he couldn’t tolerate me for that long,” Boyce recalled. “But he said he could.”

Greensboro, about a mile square, has 1,800 residents — about 76 percent white, 16 percent black, and a few Hispanics and Asians.

Boyce and Black met years ago at a carnival in Greensboro, started up a conversation on Facebook, then became serious when they were in college — she at Chesapeake College in Wye Mills and Black at Wesley College in Dover, Del. It was a quaint, small-town love affair.

She was studying to become a pediatric nurse; Black, who was 19 when he died, wanted to be a police officer.

“When I got pregnant, we began talking about getting a place together, being a family,” Boyce said.

Then she recalled that night in September, walking toward the house where Black’s mother lived and seeing the flashing lights from a police car and ambulance. As she got closer, she saw Black lying motionless on the front steps of the house, surrounded by three men — one in a Greensboro police uniform — while Black’s mother stood in the doorway looking on in horror.

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Police turned Boyce away without giving her any answers about what had happened. There has still been no official police report issued about the incident, just a brief news release crafted by the police department.

According to that statement, police received a 911 call about a man “dragging an unidentified 12-year-old down a street.” When an officer responded, Black told him the two were brothers, the release states. Police later confirmed they were not brothers.

Black and the 12-year-old ran from the officer. According to the police statement, that officer — joined by two off-duty officers from a neighboring town — caught up with Black and Tasered him after he bit two officers and struck another in the face. Moments later, according to the release, Black “began showing signs of medical distress. Officers administered Narcan and CPR. Black later died at a nearby hospital.”

No police officer has been charged in connection with Black’s death, and no cause of death has been determined. But family and friends are hoping for a different outcome beyond the narrative of white police officer and dead black man. They are hoping that the town will come together so that Black’s death will not be in vain.

According to investigators for the Black family, neither Webster’s body-cam video nor the eyewitness account given by Black’s mother squares with the statement given by police.

The investigators and Black’s mother say that the video shows that Black ran from Webster out of fear and that he fought with the officers only after being Tasered and choked by them. The video has not been released publicly.

In 2013, Webster, who was then working for a police department in Delaware, was indicted on second-degree assault charges after his dash-cam video showed him kicking a young black man in the jaw during an arrest. He was later found not guilty. Still, several Greensboro residents protested his hiring in their town.

At last week’s council meeting, the town manager said she was told that an autopsy report could be released sometime this week by the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office. Town officials were also pressing Maryland State Police to wrap up its investigation as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, on the Greensboro police Facebook page, an argument has been raging between the woman who says she placed the 911 call to police and a friend of the Black family.

Both women are white.

“I called 911 having witnessed the boy being dragged across the bridge,” writes the woman who says she contacted police. “We stopped and asked the boy if he was ok and he said NO. I asked if he wanted the police called and he yelled YES. So glad I called.”

She goes on to write: “I know what I saw and how he answered my questions. That boy was TERRIFIED.”

The family friend defends Black and writes that the 12-year-old is “devastated” and blames himself. The boy’s father has said that what the woman witnessed was not a kidnapping but horseplay between two boys who were like brothers.

Nevertheless, the onus ought not be on the woman for making the report or the 12-year-old boy. It should be on the officers and determining how it is that an unarmed young man ends up dead after their encounter.

“I’m the one that’s going to have to explain to my daughter someday why she doesn’t have a father,” Boyce said. “And that’s going to be the hardest part.”

Offering an explanation when the answers have been slow to come does not help. And the truth is, there may never be an answer as to why.

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