CHESTERTOWN - Nearly two weeks after a tough police response to a series of brawls among a crowd of 150 teens at a local firemen's carnival, African-Americans in Maryland's least-populous county are demanding an independent investigation.
Led by local officials from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, more than 200 people crammed the Kent County school board's auditorium last night, lambasting officers from about six police agencies who responded Sept. 9 to the fracas in which seven youths were arrested, six sent to the emergency room and many more were hit with pepper spray that wafted over a shopping center parking lot where the carnival fund-raiser was held.
Community activists say they will file formal letters of complaint against officers from the Kent County Sheriff's Department, the Chestertown police force and the Washington College security force who, along with the Maryland State Police and other agencies, responded to a call for help controlling a unruly crowd from a lone Chestertown officer. Activists then want an independent investigation by a police agency that was not involved.
"The fighting was wrong, there's no question about that," said Douglas B. Jones, who heads the Kent chapter of the NAACP. "But two wrongs never made a right. Pepper spray is a riot-control device, and there was no riot. This was wrong, and the kids got the worst of it."
Black residents, who account for about 20 percent of the county's 19,000 residents, need a civilian review board to handle complaints of excessive force or other misconduct against the sheriff's department or municipal police departments, community activists say.
Daryl Deaton, who said he helped break up one of the fights between teens, said, "I thought Bull Connor was still living. I saw firetrucks. I thought we were in Selma, Alabama, not Chestertown."
Police officials have said they reacted properly to the fights, which they say were touched off by a dispute between two groups of boys, one from Chestertown and one from Butlertown, a rural community about 10 miles away.
Last night, Sheriff John F. Price, who has praised officers for handling the incident without serious injuries, reiterated his support for the law enforcement officers involved.
"When you do your job, stuff like this can happen," Price said. "I'm sorry they don't like it, but we did our job."
Teens who went to the emergency room complained of eye irritation and trouble breathing.
Many say the pepper spray incident has touched a raw nerve in a community unsettled by the shotgun killing of an elderly black woman by two young white men last winter.
"My kids grew up in the '60s and '70s and never had anything like this happen," said Sylvia Berry, a lifelong Chestertown resident. "Racism was undercover in the '60s, but this has always been a racist town."
Chestertown Mayor Margo G. Bailey organized last night's forum, inviting town Police Chief Wayne Bradley, the sheriff and other police officials, and county school administrators.
"What we're trying to achieve is a dialogue that will last," said Bailey. "If the reality is the white community thinks everything is good here and the black community doesn't see it that way, we need to work together to address that."
Last night, Bailey appointed a task force that includes residents, students, police and parents. The committee will meet in a week and conduct a second town meeting in two weeks.
Many questioned whether pepper spray would have been used if police had confronted a crowd of white teens.
"Pepper spray was everywhere in the air," Kim Wickes, whose 16-year-old son was in the crowd, said Tuesday at a NAACP strategy meeting. "You had kids reacting to the spray, not knowing what was happening, running and crying as more police arrived. The police saw a crowd and reacted in the wrong way. If we let them get away with this, we're under siege."
Many parents scoff at reports that trouble started with a dispute among rival groups. But police and school officials were concerned enough about fights spilling over into Kent County High School that a contingent of officers met students when they arrived Sept. 11.
Students who had been arrested or those thought to have been involved were sent home and allowed to return to classes only after their parents met with the principal. None received formal suspensions, but parents are demanding an apology from the principal, Gordon Sampson.
"For the most part, people get along in day-to-day activities in this rural county, but we're still two separate communities," said the Rev. Clarence Hawkins, a former county commissioner. "We need to do something with our youth, and parents have to be parents. We need to recognize truth when it smacks us in the face."