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Anton Black case: Activists say Maryland town is silencing debate over 19-year-old's death in police custody

Eight months after Anton Black died in police custody on the Eastern Shore, an activist community coalition has filed a complaint with a state oversight board alleging that the Greensboro Town Council is trying to silence public comments and limit oversight of the case’s handling.

“They want to shut us down and shut us out,” said Richard Potter, co-founder of the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black.

Black, a 19-year-old African-American man who died in police custody in Caroline County, suffered a sudden cardiac death while being arrested the evening of Sept. 15. An autopsy report stated that, while his death was an accident, his struggle with law enforcement likely contributed to it. It noted that an underlying heart condition and mental illness also were factors.

Related: Maryland officials will decide whether to revoke police powers of the officer who arrested Anton Black »

Potter formed the coalition in December that sends 30 to 50 people to the monthly Town Council meetings in Greensboro, where they push for answers about Black’s death and information about the police officers involved in the encounter.

On March 8, Potter said a group of about 50 people with the coalition showed up to attend the regularly scheduled council meeting, but there was no sign-up sheet for public comment.

According to the coalition’s complaint to the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board, Greensboro Town Manager Jeanette DeLude informed Potter at the meeting that the council had changed its public comment policy a month prior.

The new policy requires speakers to obtain prior approval, according to the complaint.

Potter said they could not find any mention of the policy change in the council minutes and filed a public information request asking for emails and other documentation relating to the change.

Excessive force or proper policing: What does body cam video of Anton Black show? »

In response to his request, DeLude sent him the revised “standard operating procedures” for the council meetings and a letter stating that the changes were approved by the mayor and council, according to documents obtained by the coalition through a public information request and shared with The Baltimore Sun.

The new policy requires those who want to speak at a meeting to ask to be placed on the agenda at least seven days before the meeting and provide written materials four days in advance.

The response to the group’s public information request provided no information about how those policy changes were made other than an email describing the new policy that DeLude sent to the council March 6.

“Not only does the Town’s new policy fly in the face of the principles of open government, it was itself adopted and implemented without public notice or comment, in violation of the Maryland Open Meetings Act,” the coalition said in its complaint.

According to documentation obtained by The Sun, the Open Meetings Compliance Board sent an email May 9 to Greensboro Mayor Kevin Reichart stating that the board received a complaint alleging violations of the Open Meetings Act by the Greensboro Town Council. The board’s email asked the town to respond to the allegations within 30 days of its receipt, or by June 10. The Board is supposed to issue an opinion within 30 days after receiving the town’s response.

A spokeswoman for the Town of Greensboro sent an email to The Sun regarding the complaint that stated: “We received a complaint and are preparing a substantive response. The Town of Greensboro offers members of the public the opportunity to speak at our public meetings. We fully recognize and value our community’s right to free speech and believe a healthy dialogue is the foundation upon which strong community relations are formed.”

DeLude referred The Sun to the town’s statement.

The controversial encounter has drawn significant attention.

In January, Gov. Larry Hogan expressed frustration about how long it had taken to get answers in the case.

“I’ve been pushing both the state police and the medical examiner to finish their investigation as quickly as they possibly can. … The family, the Police Department, the community, everyone deserves to get answers,” said Hogan, a Republican.

The next day, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner released the autopsy to The Sun, concluding that Black’s death was an accident.

Greensboro police officer Thomas Webster IV approached the teen Sept. 15 after a report of a kidnapping. Body-camera footage shows Webster ordering Black to put his hands behind him, but the teen fled. Webster and two other officers chased Black to his parents’ home, where the teen got into a parked car, the footage shows. Webster used his baton to break the car’s window and reached in to shock Black with a Taser.

After a struggle, the officers forced Black to the ground on a ramp outside his family’s home. Black showed signs of medical distress, and he was pronounced dead later at the hospital.

Webster was placed on administrative leave and remains there as the state police conduct an administrative review of Black’s arrest.

State police closed its criminal investigation into the case March 7, after Caroline County State’s Attorney Joseph Riley declined to charge any Greensboro police officers, including Webster.

Meanwhile, the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission is investigating Greensboro’s hiring of Webster after details emerged about his past as an officer in Delaware.

Webster had been indicted on second-degree assault charges while working as an officer in Delaware. Dash-cam footage from that incident shows Webster kicking a black man in the head during a 2013 arrest. Webster was later found not guilty, according to news reports, and resigned with a $230,000 severance package.

The news reports revealed that he had 29 use-of-force reports in his file at the time of his indictment in Delaware. Those records were not included in the application sent to Maryland state authorities for review, though officials say it’s unclear whether the Greensboro Police withheld the information or if they were unaware.

The police standards commission will hold a decertification hearing to determine whether Webster can hold his police certification, according to Gerard Shields, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. The date is still to be determined.

Potter said he believes the public meeting rule changes were “retaliation” to limit discussion of issues such as Webster’s hiring among other criticism of the town’s operations.

Baltimore Sun reporters Tim Prudente, Talia Richman and Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

crentz@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cdrentz

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