The story of Anton Black is one that we have heard too many times. The 19-year-old was involved in a fairly routine activity — in this case roughhousing with a young family friend — and ended up dead after being apprehended by police in Greensboro.
And like the other stories of black men and boys around the country who have died from encounters with police, including Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Chinedu Okob in San Francisco and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, there are questions about his death, the use of excessive force by police and how the investigation has been handled.
Had Black’s family and others in the community not kept pressure on the Town Council and police department, his death might have quietly disappeared into a file of police reports.
Instead, four months later, town officials are playing crisis control over their inaction on the case.
Police say the incident all started with a 911 call last year on the evening of Sept. 15 when a caller reported a kidnapping. A police officer from Greensboro and a neighboring jurisdiction arrived to find Black dragging a 12-year-old boy down the street, according to a report by Maryland State Police. Black ran after they instructed him to put his hands behind his back. During the pursuit an officer used a taser a to try to subdue him. According to the police report, he attempted to flee police again before biting two officers and punching one in the face. The officers then noticed he was in medical distress and called an ambulance. He was later pronounced dead at a local hospital.
Family members find the police version hard to believe. For one, Black and the young boy knew each other and were likely playing around, the family has said. How a concerned citizen mistook playing as a kidnapping, we don’t know. But it wouldn’t be the first time biases have led to the mundane activities of a black person being misinterpreted as something far more menacing.
Once the police realized the boy wasn’t in danger, why didn’t they leave the two alone? Police reports don’t indicate that the boy ever claimed he was being kidnapped.
We will never know why Black decided to run. But in a society where black men are arrested at much higher rates than whites, and often face a guilty-until-proven-innocent presumption, maybe in the heat of the moment running seemed like a better option. Plus, we don’t know what was said during his interaction with police.
At any rate, should running from police result in a death sentence? We think not. (It was later found that Black was unarmed.)
The incident has resulted in racial tension in the tiny town of about 1,180 people. Rene Swafford, an attorney representing the Black estate, said African American parents in particular are wary about letting their children play outside.
Town officials have contributed greatly to the animosity of the case by letting an officer involved in Black’s detention remain on the force. The Town Council only voted on Sept. 10 to suspend Thomas Webster IV until a more detailed state investigation is completed. The vote came after intense pushback from Black’s family and members of the community who have crowded town meetings complaining about the handling of the case.
Black residents had protested Mr. Webster’s hiring in the first place because of a racial incident at his previous job. Mr. Webster was arrested in 2015 after a grand jury indicted him for kicking unarmed Lateef Dickerson in the head and breaking his jaw, according to the Delaware News Journal. Mr. Dickerson, a 33-year-old black man, was getting into a face-down position on the ground at gunpoint on the order of Mr. Webster, who is white. The incident was caught on police dash-cam. Mr. Webster was later acquitted of the crime but released by the police department.
The state police homicide unit is investigating Black’s death. They are waiting results from an autopsy and toxicology reports from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which are still pending. The state police report will be presented to the Caroline County State’s Attorney’s Office for review once it is completed.
Greensboro town officials need to do more to continue and try to ease tensions in their town and make up for the mishandling of the case thus far. They could start by making public the body camera footage of the incident. The cameras don’t lie. Ms. Swafford says the video shows a different story than that told by police.
The chief medical examiner needs to put the case on fast track, and we question whether Caroline County prosecutors should be the ones to decide how to proceed. Given the distrust in the community, a prosecutor from a neighboring county should take over the case.