CHESTERTOWN - African-Americans in this normally placid Kent County seat are accusing police of racism and brutality for using pepper spray to disperse a crowd of 150 to 200 teens - many of them middle school pupils - at a firemen's carnival last weekend.
Last night, more than 80 parents, community leaders and students turned out for a fact-finding meeting arranged by a local official of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The incident, parents said, represents a gross over-reaction by police, excessive force that would not have been used had the crowd been mostly white.
"OK, granted there were a couple of kids involved in fights," said Yvonne McKinney, who helped organize last night's meeting. "But when middle school kids get Maced, something's wrong. I can understand fear; I've tried to see it from the police view. But these are good kids, not gangster kids."
Pleas for help Saturday night from two Chestertown officers who radioed that they were surrounded by an unruly group brought more than two dozen officers from six agencies rushing to the shopping center parking lot where the carnival was staged.
Before the area was cleared shortly after 10 p.m., with help from a Maryland State Police helicopter dispatched from Centreville, seven teen-agers, ages 14 to 19, had been arrested. Parents said many teens reported eye irritation and difficulty breathing. Six people were treated and released Saturday night and early Sunday at the emergency room of Kent and Queen Anne's Hospital, a spokeswoman said.
Police said the two officers who were patrolling the carnival fund-raiser for the Chestertown Volunteer Fire Company attempted to break up several fights that broke out among two groups, rivals from Chestertown and Butlertown, a rural community about five miles away. The crowd became more aggressive, eventually nearly surrounding the pair, who called for help.
"There was at least one officer who was assaulted, there were multiple arrests, one with a drug charge, and we had 20-plus officers on the scene," said Lt. Gary Foster, Centreville barracks commander. "I was called at home and told they were surrounded by a crowd and that fights were breaking out. I authorized [a dispatcher] to call [off-duty troopers] at home. We sent everybody."
Residents at last night's meeting said the incident is the latest in a long line of racial problems between citizens and local police.
"It was all excessive," said Shelley Butler, a Chestertown resident whose daughter, Ashley, 16, was struck with pepper spray during the incident. "They even brought fire trucks up, I think with every intention of hosing the kids down."
Kent County Sheriff John F. Price, who answered the emergency call, along with three deputies who were on duty, said his department made five of the seven arrests, charging the youths with assault, trespassing and disorderly conduct. Three of the teens were 14, one 16 and one was 17, Price said.
Business owners in the Washington Square Shopping Center locked their doors, apparently fearing - as did police - that the violence might spill over, Price said.
Calling the incident "a serious threat" to the officers' safety, Price said neither he nor other police officials have received formal complaints from parents or others in the community.
"I arrived about halfway through, and I never saw any misconduct on the part of my deputies or other officers," Price said. "There was a total lack of respect for the officers and a total disregard for their own safety on the part of some of those involved.
"Frankly, I think the officers should be commended for getting through this without any serious injury to anybody."
On Monday, parents were further angered when a contingent of deputies and state troopers stood by as students began arriving at Kent County High School.
County Superintendent Lorraine A. Costella said the show of force was a precaution against rumors that students would bring the dispute between the two groups to school.
Some of the students who had been arrested were removed from school buses and taken to Principal Gordon Sampson's office, asked to leave and told they would be suspended, she said.
"Some of the parents were called ahead of time, in other cases, the kids had already left for school," Costella said. "The principal will have meetings with all these students and their parents. We asked the Sheriff's Department to provide some assistance to be sure that no one brought the fight to the school Monday."
The sheriff's office, town officials and county school officials have scheduled a public meeting for Sept. 21 to discuss the incident.