Easton -- State police said yesterday that they are investigating the death of an Eastern Shore man while he was in the custody of Easton police Saturday, one day after he was arrested by an officer who used pepper spray.
Officials from two local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People held a press conference yesterday to discuss the case and said they were satisfied for the moment with the state police inquiry. But they said they were frustrated that an autopsy by the state medical examiner to determine the cause of 32-year-old Nevin Keith Potter's death has not been finished. They said they had not ruled out asking federal authorities to step in.
"The NAACP is in the business of holding people in authority to a higher standard," said Walter Black Jr., a longtime activist. "We are going to get an independent investigation. We don't know what happened, except that the man got arrested and - a day later - he's dead. We want the truth, and the police should, too."
Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman, said the agency began its investigation after receiving a request from Easton Police Chief Melbourne J. "Ben" Blue.
Officer Eric Kellner, who arrested Potter, has been placed on an administrative assignment.
According to Easton police, Potter, who friends say ran a small home-improvement business in Denton, died at Easton Memorial Hospital on Saturday after being stopped for driving with a suspended or revoked license.
In a statement released Monday, police said Potter ran away after the traffic stop about two blocks from Easton's downtown business district about 11:25 a.m. last Friday.
Kellner, a five-year veteran, pursued Potter, who turned and "faced Kellner in a fighting stance" before being sprayed in the face with pepper spray, police said.
After his arrest, Potter refused medical attention, according to the police statement, but was taken to the department's headquarters for "decontamination procedures" and placed in a holding cell.
About two hours after the arrest, Potter "showed signs of distress" and was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where he died Saturday, police said.
About 50 friends and neighbors gathered in a Grasonville church for yesterday's brief news conference organized by NAACP leaders, who urged witnesses to come forward.
"Surely, at that time of day in broad daylight, dozens of people might have seen something," Black said.
Many who turned out at Bryan's United Methodist Church said they did not believe that Potter, a former track star at Queen Anne's County High School, would have run from police over a relatively minor traffic offense.
In the rural Grasonville neighborhood where Potter grew up, former neighbor Mary Walker said residents have been shaken by his death.
"I've known him since he was a baby. He grew up with my kids," Walker said. "It really was like a village. It's been a great loss for the whole community."
Funeral services were to take place tomorrow at the church. Details of the service had not been determined yesterday.