Anton Black lawsuit: Defendant list grows as Shore officers deny excessive force in death
CLARIFICATION: This report updates the type of use of force reports in Thomas Webster IV's file.
As motions pile up urging a federal court to put to rest a lawsuit over the death of a Black teen in the custody of Eastern Shore police officers, a former Pocomoke City official has been added to the legal battle’s laundry list of defendants.
Anton Black, 19, died after a September 2018 encounter with police officers in the Caroline County town of Greensboro, Maryland.
What began as a 911 call reporting that Anton Black was pulling a child down the road with him ended with him unresponsive after at least three officers and a civilian restrained him outside his mother's trailer.
Anton Black's parents, the mother of his child and the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black filed a wrongful death lawsuit in December alleging Anton Black's death was the direct result of officers’ excessive use of force and that public officials conspired to protect those officers from the consequences of their actions.
The plaintiffs filed an amended version of their complaint Feb. 18 that brings the tally of defendants to 12, including former Greensboro officer Thomas Webster IV, Ridgely Police Chief Gary Manos, Centreville officer Dennis Lannon and now former Greensboro town manager Jeannette Cleveland, who briefly did a stint as Pocomoke City’s town manager.
The defendants have made their own recent court filings, breaking off into three groups, each submitting motions either to have the lawsuit dismissed or to have the judge rule in their favor. Arguments range from assertions that none of the officers used excessive force to claims of qualified immunity.
Accusations of reckless hiring
One of the changes to the amended complaint is the addition of Jeannette Cleveland, formerly Jeannette DeLude, to the list of defendants.
She was Greensboro’s town manager at the time of Anton Black’s death and when the police department hired Webster, the primary responding officer in the case.
Cleveland spent roughly two weeks as town manager for Pocomoke City in January 2020 before she stepped down from the post amid renewed controversy surrounding Anton Black’s death.
“Defendants Petyo and Cleveland caused Decedent Anton Black’s death by recklessly hiring and retaining Defendant Webster when they knew or should have known of Officer Webster’s history of violent, abusive, racially discriminatory and inappropriate conduct and his propensity to violate rights of Black people,” the lawsuit now states.
Webster was a former Dover officer who was captured on dashcam footage in 2013 kicking a Black man in the head while he was unarmed and getting into a face-down position at gunpoint. Webster broke the 33-year-old’s jaw.
He was acquitted of an assault charge in that case, but left the department as part of a 2016 agreement that stipulated he never again seek employment with the city.
Greensboro hired Webster in early 2018, despite concerns raised to public officials.
Cleveland told Delaware Online at the time: “We went through the interview process and we did a very thorough background check on him and we hired the best-qualified person that we had apply. Because he was found innocent of everything, there is no history."
Former Greensboro police chief Michael Petyo would plead guilty in January 2020 to intentionally misrepresenting and omitting facts when he submitted for Webster’s certification by the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commission.
The commission was aware Webster had been acquitted of the 2013 assault charge, but did not know about the other nearly 30 use-of-force reports in Webster's file from Dover until after Anton Black's death, according to Delaware Online.
“In preparing this application, Petyo falsified and intentionally omitted records relating to Webster’s previous use of excessive force and racial bias against Black residents he was charged with protecting and serving … Cleveland ratified and condoned Petyo’s criminal misconduct …” the lawsuit argues.
The issue of positional asphyxia
A "false narrative" is what the defendants are calling the plaintiffs' allegations Anton Black died from positional asphyxia because of the prone position officers had him in.
A motion for summary judgment, which asks a judge to rule in favor of one party over another without a full trial, has been filed on behalf of Webster, Manos and Lannon. A memorandum in support of that motion takes aim at multiple allegations in the lawsuit that the defendants say aren't backed up by "clearly established law," including the claim of positional asphyxia.
Positional asphyxiation occurs when a person’s physical position obstructs their breathing. Reform advocates have pointed to it as one of the potential dangers of certain types of restraint techniques used by law enforcement, including the prone position Anton Black was placed in.
A prone restraint forces a suspect into a face-down position, often while physical pressure is being applied to restrain a person’s arms and sometimes feet or legs as well.
The lawsuit asserts that Anton Black was immobilized face-down while Manos’ body weight was on his back and the other officers and civilian assisted in keeping him pinned.
“Even after Anton was handcuffed, the officers ignored the danger they were causing and kept Anton in a prone restraint for approximately six minutes as he struggled to breathe, lost consciousness and suffered cardiac arrest,” the lawsuit states.
The complaint also notes that the Greensboro Police Department’s own 659-page handbook warns that placing a person on their stomach for an extended period can hinder their ability to breathe.
Though a Maryland medical examiner ruled Anton Black’s death accidental, lawyers for the plaintiffs have said they plan to present expert testimony to show his death should've been classified as a homicide caused by positional asphyxia.
The defendants’ memorandum outlines a narrative in which “Manos laid partially across his (Anton Black's) hip area, hip to hip to turn him on his stomach” at about the 3:52 mark of the body-worn camera footage of the encounter.
By 4:47, the defendants emphasize that as Anton Black was being handcuffed, Manos is seen next to Anton Black, not with this weight positioned on his back. Manos still had his leg draped over Anton Black’s lower body, yet was seated on the ground.
The memorandum explains that Manos is also seen sitting up and not positioned on top of Anton Black just after five minutes and again at about the six-minute mark.
Anton Black’s legs were secured in shackles by 9:52, the memorandum states, and Anton Black was then put on his side in “the recovery position.” He “appeared unresponsive” at that point.
Emergency medical attention was provided at the scene, but Anton Black was later pronounced dead at an Easton hospital.
An autopsy identified it as a case of “sudden cardiac death,” caused by a congenital heart condition. The medical examiner wrote that the stress of Anton Black's struggle likely contributed to his death but there was no evidence of the way officers restrained him directly causing or significantly contributing to his death.
The plaintiffs' amended complaint emphasizes "medical evidence shows that it is extremely unlikely that an otherwise healthy and athletic 19-year old teenager, with absolutely no history of any problem of heart function, would spontaneously die from this type of heart condition."
Yet Anton Black's cause of death has been confirmed by Dr. Renu Virmani of the CVPath Institute, a Maryland-based cardiovascular research and education organization, according to the defendants.
The memorandum also cites at least one researcher who has posited that, “Subjects end up being ‘proned out’ in about 60 percent of physical force encounters — without a death or serious injury resulting,” and that, “Prone restraint is needed for officer safety.”
Positional asphyxia has appeared in a "handful of opinions" from Maryland’s U.S. District Court and the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in the past 20 years. Those unpublished decisions largely dealt with the practice of hogtying, according to the memorandum, which is not a factor in this case.
The defendants argue existing precedent doesn't apply to the constitutionality of the way officers restrained Anton Black in September 2018.
Reasonable versus excessive force
The defendants also contend none of the officers involved used excessive force against Anton Black.
Except for an unsuccessful attempt to use a Taser on Anton Black, the memorandum on behalf of Webster, Manos and Lannon stresses that no other weapons were used against Anton Black and there’s no evidence the officers struck, choked, punched or kicked him.
Rather, they’re calling the physical force used to gain control of Anton Black “objectively reasonable.”
The lawsuit describes the way Anton Black was restrained as "excessively forceful." It also points to Webster using his baton to smash the window of a disabled car Anton Black locked himself in, a Taser deployment "without adequate warning" and the instructing of a civilian to aid in pursuing and restraining Anton Black as violations of the 19-year-old's rights.
"He did not utter any threat or brandish any weapon. He was simply experiencing a mental health crisis, as known and reported to dispatch by Officer Webster," the complaint states.
The lawsuit asserts that Anton Black "posed no serious threat to any person," yet the defendants' memorandum argues that the nature of the 911 call and Webster's first impression of the scene meant the officer was responding to a child abduction and "had both the right and the obligation to pursue Mr. Black and take him into custody."
When Anton Black attempted to flee, Webster had no chance to investigate the incident further, according to the memorandum, and had not been able to check Anton Black for weapons. He only had a brief interaction with Anton Black and the child's description of him as schizophrenic.
As for Webster's use of his baton and Taser, the memorandum notes that the officers needed to take Anton Black into custody as quickly as possible because they didn't know if he was "armed and dangerous," what was causing his behavior, why he was resisting or what he planned to do after locking himself in the car.
"Officers do not have to become veritable punching bags or willingly expose themselves to injury when taking a resisting suspect into custody. Just as with the handcuffs, the use of leg shackles to stop Mr. Black from kicking was more than objectively reasonable, it was imperative," the memorandum states.