BALTIMORE, MARYLAND — With systemic racism a hot topic around the country, as U.S. cities such as Hackensack were the host site of Homeric protests staged by American youth demanding justice for George Floyd and a string of other black men and women who were victims of police brutality after their senseless slayings at the hands of police, two Baltimore journalists have released a boldly uplifting documentary examining racism and retaliation bubbling beneath the southern charm of a small Maryland city that calls itself “The Friendliest Town on the Eastern Shore.”
In their debut documentary “The Friendliest Town,” before a backdrop of scenes from the tight-knit, picturesque Pocomoke City alternating cornfields, placid bodies of water, and intermittent gospel music resounding from the many houses of worship, Stephen Janis and Taya Graham, investigative reporters with The Real News Network and hosts of TRNN’s The Police Accountability Report, tell the story of Kelvin Sewell, a homicide detective who — in 2015 after a valiant tenure reducing a once-astronomical crime rate as Pocomoke City’s first black chief of police — was fired without explanation.
Pocomoke City, which is situated in Worcester County, has a population of roughly 4,300 people — a mix of blacks and whites in which some black residents interviewed attest to people of color being “yes men” and working predominately in blue-collar jobs.
“We’ve seen the sign on the highway that Pocomoke is one of the friendliest towns in the state of Maryland, but from my perception, the years I’ve been here, I would say somewhat friendly, not all the way friendly,” said Ronnie White, a pastor with a Pocomoke church, in the 80-minute film.
Sewell’s dismissal rocked the small town as residents showed in droves to council meetings, tirelessly defending his honor and demanding to know why their beloved chief — who many looked upon as a genuine friend over an intimidating authoritative figure who helped transform the culture of the once bruised city, which did not see one homicide under his leadership — was mysteriously let go. While City Mayor Bruce Morrison, who is white, never divulged the reason for his firing to residents at council meetings, it was conjectured that Sewell’s refusal to fire two black police officers per governing body’s orders following an EEOC complaint in which one of them, Frank Savage, filed for discrimination, among other allegations against the Worcester County Drug Task Force, sealed his doom.
“I’ve never seen police that beloved by a community,” said Janis, who was initially turned away when he attempted to enter his first council meeting in Pocomoke City to cover the news. (His subsequent appeal provided the Open Public Meetings Act was successful, and he was able to attend future meetings to cover Sewell’s story as it unfolded.)
As residents crowded council chambers, Reverend White called it a calling from God to rally the community in Sewell’s honor, and the coalition, “The Citizens for a Better Pocomoke,” was born.
“I don’t know who to trust and what to believe,” says a teary-eyed coalition member to the council in the film.
“If it isn’t about racism, what is it?” Said another.
For Graham, following the story became a labor of love as she began to empathize with the residents who, like her and Janis, were desperately seeking answers.
“He was making a difference in the community, which meant that a lot of policing wasn’t going to be necessary, that a lot of what they did was not going to be necessary, that we were no longer going to tear up our communities, our homes, our neighborhoods,” said one Pocomoke City resident in the film about Sewell. “It lessened what they needed to do. He made a difference.”
While Sewell eventually packed up and left Pocomoke with his family, Janis and Graham continued to probe the case, paying a visit to the honorary deputy of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office Pension Plan.
“He didn’t tell us why Kelvin was fired, but he did make innuendo about the bad things that Kevlin had done,” said Janis in the film.
As the journalists continued to probe for the truth, a plot twist emerges when they’re contacted by a drug dealer who lets them in on a secret about Sheriff’s officers who allegedly prompted her for any incriminating information she had on Savage or Sewell in exchange for her pardon.
When Sewell files a discrimination lawsuit in federal court following his dismissal, explaining how he was let go after refusing to fire the black officers, Sewell is charged by the Maryland prosecutor with misconduct in a case dating back to 2014 for a motor vehicle involving a pair of parked cars during which Sewell did not charge the driver, a black man, with leaving the scene of an accident. Because the indictment came on the heels of Sewell’s lawsuit following his termination as police chief, the journalists saw Sewell’s criminal charge as an act of retaliation by the city and a “concerted effort to prosecute him.”
In a turn of events, Janis also finds himself embroiled in a criminal case, which is also documented in the film. “The Friendliest Town” not only probes the question marks regarding the integrity of community policing and Sewell’s unjust fall from grace, but stirs conversation about racism and ethics, and the positive ripple effect resulting from everyday people standing up in support of their cause. To quote, Graham, “communities of color are finally getting the attention they deserve.”
“We need to know it’s not impossible to have fair and just law enforcement,” said Janis. “The rising of political consciousness and fighting against centuries of racism is worth documenting in and of itself. The debate of policing is complex and multi-faceted, and it’s an important institution that has power, and if it’s done wrong, it can be incredibly damaging.
He continued, “We all can learn from the value of political efficacy and the importance of having institutions working for the people.”
“The Friendliest Town” will be made available via Gravitas Ventures across North America (the United States and Canada) on all VOD/Digital and Blu-Ray/DVD platforms on January 19, 2021.