Md.’s Police Hiring System Failed. The State Needs to Find Out Why.

Many questions arise from the death of 19-year-old Anton Black at the hands of officers of the Greensboro Police Department on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. One of them is why the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission certified Thomas Webster IV to be a police officer in Maryland.

Mr. Webster, who is white, was the first officer on the scene of the reported “kidnapping” that turned out to be horseplay between Mr. Black and his 12-year-old family friend, both black. Would Mr. Black still be alive if an officer with a less volatile history than Mr. Webster had been first to arrive at the scene? That question will haunt Mr. Black’s family and Greensboro forever.

Police chiefs in Maryland have varying degrees of skills and experience, especially in towns like Greensboro (population 1,931). Did a system established by state law that is intended to prevent local police chiefs from making hiring decisions that endanger the safety of citizens fail? If so, why?

We’ll never know if another officer would have done something differently that avoided the death of Mr. Black. We can, in my opinion, conclude that Mr. Webster never should have been certified as a police officer in Maryland and making decisions about the arrest of Mr. Black.

Mr. Webster was on the Greensboro force less than six months at the time of Mr. Black’s death. But it was not his first job as a police officer.

In 2015, Mr. Webster was acquitted of felony assault for an incident that took place in 2013 when he was a corporal with the Dover, Del., Police Department. Mr. Webster kicked Lateef Dickerson in the head while he was on his hands and knees. Mr. Dickerson, who is black, was in the process of lying prostrate as commanded by Mr. Webster.

The kick knocked Mr. Dickerson unconscious and broke his jaw. Mr. Webster told a jury that, based on dispatch calls, he believed that Mr. Dickerson was armed and aimed his kick at Mr. Dickerson’s upper body, not his head. Mr. Dickerson was not armed and the kick struck him squarely on the jaw.

Watch the video of the incident. It apparently did not persuade the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Webster intentionally used excessive force. It certainly convinced me, after considering his performance evaluations and disciplinary record, that Mr. Webster should have been fired.

Mr. Webster was not fired. He was induced to voluntarily resign from the Dover department by severance payments from the city totaling $230,000. The city paid $300,000 to settle a federal lawsuit filed by Mr. Dickerson.

Thanks to information that came out during the 2015 criminal prosecution of Mr. Webster there was a rare look into the disciplinary record of a police officer. Mr. Webster was hired by Dover in 2005. By the time he was indicted in 2015 there were 29 “use of force” reports in his file. None resulted in disciplinary charges.

A 2006 performance evaluation of Mr. Webster stated: “Officer Webster is very fit and strong. There have been times when he should have attemted [sic] lesser degrees of force to accomplish an objective. He has been spoken to regarding this issue.” A 2012 performance evaluation noted: “PFC Webster has made some very poor decisions and he obviously does not think of the consequences of his actions.”

For those who haven’t read hundreds of performance evaluations of police officers, let me translate: “Mr. Webster is a tough guy with questionable judgment who tends to needlessly rough up suspects, and I am worried about what he might do in the future.”

The problems with Mr. Webster’s performance apparently persisted for at least six years. Mr. Webster’s supervisors clearly saw signs of worse trouble ahead. Their concerns were justified.

In 2013, there was another incident before the one that led to his indictment. Mr. Webster and another officer took two drunken men from a 7-Eleven in Dover to a rural area left them there despite one individual’s request to be taken to a hospital. The two men were retrieved by Delaware state troopers after a neighbor called about them.

Mr. Webster was suspended for 10 days and placed on disciplinary probation for his actions. He was on that disciplinary probation when he kicked Mr. Dickerson in the head.

The 2015 trial of Mr. Webster drew national attention. The decision by Greensboro Police Chief Mike Petyo to hire him last year caused an uproar on the Eastern Shore. There is no way that the Police Training and Standards Commission was unaware of Mr. Webster’s background when it certified him to be a police officer in Maryland. Indeed, Mr. Petyo was obliged to bring it to the commission’s attention.

State law establishes a comprehensive process by which individuals, including individuals who were police officers in other states, are certified to be police officers in Maryland. In my opinion, the law gave the commission ample authority to deny Mr. Webster certification because his record demonstrated that he had not “displayed the behavior necessary to perform the duties of a police officer.” Not even close.

The law is only as effective as the people administering it. Like many state agencies, the Police Training and Standards Commission has been deprived of adequate resources. The commission’s regulations contain detailed standards individuals must meet. If the end result is that individuals like Mr. Webster get certified, the regulations aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

To his credit, Gov. Larry Hogan demanded that Greensboro officials be more forthcoming about the unfortunate death of Mr. Black. He also should demand that the Police Standards and Training Commission explain why Mr. Webster was certified to be a police officer in Maryland. And if the governor doesn’t do so, the General Assembly should.

[Published as guest commentary by Maryland Matters on January 30, 2019 but not posted to my blog until April 13, 2019. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

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