A retired African American homicide detective from Baltimore moves to the Eastern Shore. He becomes chief of police in Pocomoke City, which bills itself as “The Friendliest Town on the Eastern Shore.” He is respected and even beloved by some Black and white residents for his community-based policing. But less than four years after his arrival, he is fired by the City Council with no explanation given.
What happened and why?
That’s the setup for a documentary by Baltimore journalists Stephen Janis and Taya Graham that premieres nationally Jan. 19 on demand at iTunes and other streaming sites. And if you are looking for an in-depth, socially conscious exploration of what racism looks like once you get past the pretty, chamber-of-commerce veneer in some small towns, this is a film not to be missed.
At the core of the documentary is the story line of Kelvin Sewell, a retired Baltimore homicide detective coming to Pocomoke City in 2011 as new chief in this town of about 4,000. In the film, Janis, a crime and investigative reporter at The Real News Network, a Baltimore-based nonprofit platform, explains that he and Sewell had a relationship as reporter and source and wound up writing a book together on crime in Baltimore, “Why Do We Kill: The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore,” which was published in 2011.
Janis tells viewers about Sewell’s dream of community-based policing with officers walking among and talking to citizens as part of their duties. The reporter thought Sewell was happily living out his dream until he got a call in 2015 from the police chief asking him to come to Pocomoke City. Sewell thought he was going to get fired and wanted the reporter to cover it for The Real News Network.
What Janis and Graham, also a reporter for The Real News Network, found when they got to Worcester County was a story that they felt was begging to be told: City officials in a town with a racist past trying to fire the town’s first Black chief with no explanation, outraging citizens, both white and Black. Supporters shown in the film believed Sewell was being fired for not terminating a Black officer who had filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint after alleging he was subjected to racial insults and epithets.
Sewell’s eventual firing began a five-year journalistic odyssey by Janis and Graham that involved some 45 trips to the Eastern Shore from Baltimore (a 3½ hour drive) to tell the story of Sewell, race, policing and how citizens took on leaders of Pocomoke City.
Sewell’s story is an emotionally powerful one. In the film, Graham says city leaders didn’t want to just fire him — they wanted to destroy him. As you watch, it is difficult not to root for Sewell in the face of what he and his family went through after his termination. They eventually moved back to the Baltimore area, with Sewell afraid that police on the Eastern Shore would try to frame him or members of his family for crimes they did not commit. Once his story line grabs you, it does not let go for the full 77 minutes.
But his story is also a complicated one. While initially not offering an explanation of the firing, the city charged Sewell with misconduct for allegedly obstructing the investigation of a traffic accident that occurred in 2014.
Sewell then sued Pocomoke City, alleging the department had an “unchecked pattern and practice of virulent” discrimination and that the city had forced him out after refusing to fire two black officers, according to a Baltimore Sun report. The city settled the federal lawsuit in 2019 and agreed to reform its policies and training.
After a trial, an appeal and another trial, Sewell received a sentence in 2019 of three years probation on the misconduct charge. He is now appealing.
In 2016, he went to work doing criminal investigations in the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office. He is the chief senior investigator today.
Janis, who directed and produced, and Graham who produced and also shot video of council meetings and other events, never lose sight of Sewell’s personal story. But they go deeper to contextualize it within the racial history of Pocomoke City and a rising consciousness among some of the Black residents there who organized and fought to be heard at City Council meetings about the chief’s ouster. The story of this awakening is an inspirational one that takes the film beyond the particulars of the racial dynamics of a small Eastern Shore town to the larger American story seen on the nation’s streets last summer and fall of a rising Black consciousness that demands more equitable policing and transparency in law enforcement matters.
“I think we were both moved by witnessing first hand how policing could work, and also watching a town’s political consciousness arise,” Janis wrote in an email answering questions about the documentary. “We’d gone to Pocomoke to cover the story of Sewell’s firing and we both remember someone coming up to us and saying after we’d completed a piece of how his firing really happened, if it weren’t for the Real News we wouldn’t have known the truth. After that we felt compelled to keep doing the work to inform the people. It was a small community of people who were seeking change and it felt like we had to document their lives.”
The film opens on a choir singing “Down by the Riverside,” foreshadowing the role ministers and their congregation will play in the film. When the song ends, the soundtrack is stripped down to just a piano and finger snaps. Images within a montage of the town appear and disappear in perfect rhythmic sync with the beat of the music.
The images and music are all the more impressive when you consider they were almost all choreographed by Janis and Graham, with some video help from Janis’ son, Evan. Janis himself can be heard playing guitar and much of the piano on the soundtrack.
This is a film steeped in social justice, empowerment and the promise of societal change.
Near the end of the production, Janis and Graham speak about what they took away from their time in Pocomoke City.
“I mean, why do you care about some police chief in Pocomoke who did community policing?” Janis said. “But you should, because what happened to him can happen to anybody. … And what it says about our criminal justice system is that it’s not a justice system at all. It’s inherently unjust, and it can be used to retaliate.”
Said Graham: “I’m a Black woman who grew up in Baltimore City, so naturally I was already somewhat skeptical of the criminal justice system. But I had no idea how warped it could be by racism … I think I learned something here that I really didn’t understand before, and that’s that racism really destroys everything that it touches. And if we don’t root it out, it will destroy our country.”
Some of the Black city officials and citizens also spoke about how the controversy around the firing of Chief Sewell and the formation of the group Citizens for a Better Pocomoke in reaction to it changed their lives as they challenged the power structure at council sessions and organized to put Black citizens into positions of leadership.
“We woke up,” Todd Knock, a Black member of the City Council who now leads it, said. “We realized that there were things going on that we didn’t necessarily approve of. You just go along to get along, and that’s what we had done here in Pocomoke, what the African American community here had done. We just went along to get along. There were a lot of things we didn’t like. But Chief Sewell was our person.”
“It was a total awakening of the Black community,” Rev. James Jones said.
“We’re going to become a powerful people,” Pastor Ronnie White proclaimed.
And then, as if he was addressing the white power structure, he added, “And the things you’ve been doing for years, you can’t do it any more.”
“The Friendliest Town” is available for pre-order on iTunes at itunes.apple.com/us/movie/the-friendliest-town/id1546710958?ls=1. (A earlier version misidentified the title in this link.)
Updates on other video on-demand sites where it can be seen following the Jan. 19 premiere can be found at facebook.com/thefriendliesttown.
David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.