Family of US Black man killed by MD police reaches $5m settlement

Use of excessive force by police in the death of Anton Black leads to a settlement requiring changes in police policies and enhanced transparency.

Jennell Black, mother of Anton Black, looks at a collection of her son's belongings in 2019. The family reached a settlement for a lawsuit against several police officers on August 8, 2022 [File: Patrick Semansky/AP Photo]

Relatives of 19-year-old Anton Black, who died after being detained by police officers in Maryland, have reached a $5m partial settlement in their wrongful death lawsuit.

The agreement includes changes to police training and policies, lawyers for the family of the Black American said on Monday. The federal lawsuit accused Maryland police of excessive force against Anton Black, whom they apprehended outside of his family’s home in Greensboro, Maryland in 2018.

Officers handcuffed Black and shackled his legs before he stopped breathing.  The lawsuit alleges that the police tried to cover up the killing by spreading false claims that Black was on drugs and exhibiting “superhuman” strength.

His death spurred calls for policing reforms and an independent inquiry. A Maryland state law named in Black’s honour expanded public access to records about police disciplinary cases, as the United States continues to be roiled by debates over racism and police violence.

“They had to know that he was dying,” said Anton’s father, Antone Black. “They killed my son for no reason.”

The lawsuit’s settlement resolves the family’s claims against three Maryland towns — Greensboro, Ridgely and Centreville — and several individuals: former Greensboro Police Officer Thomas Webster IV, former Greensboro Police Chief Michael Petyo, former Ridgely Police Chief Gary Manos, Centreville Police Officer Dennis Lannon and former Greensboro Town Manager Jeannette Cleveland.

The $5m settlement amount includes attorneys’ fees and requires the three towns to make changes to their policies on police use of force, provide officers with mental health training, and offer annual “implicit bias” training and de-escalation methods.

Black had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and had been hospitalised less than two weeks prior to his death after his father had called the police saying his son had been acting strangely at home.

The agreement does not address the family’s claims against former Maryland Chief Medical Examiner David Fowler and the state medical examiner’s office, which said that Black’s death was the accidental result of a heart condition, not the excessive force used during the arrest.

Fowler has been the subject of controversy before, and testified in the trial of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was later found guilty of killing George Floyd in May 2020. Fowler said that Floyd’s “enlarged heart” was the cause of his death, not Chauvin kneeling on his neck.

A  cardiologist at Johns Hopkins University concluded that asphyxiation was the cause of Black’s death.

“There was nothing accidental about it,” family lawyer Rene Swafford said at a news conference on Monday.

Police body camera footage recorded some parts of the fatal encounter on September 15, 2018. Police confronted Black after a 911 call reported that a man had a child in a headlock.

The boy, a friend of Black’s family, told officer Webster that Black was “schizophrenic” and had not been acting normally. When the officer told Black that he was under arrest, Black responded by saying “I love you” before jogging away.

Manos and Lannon were off duty when they tried to help Webster apprehend Black.

Black ran to his family’s home and got into a car. Webster smashed the window with a baton and used a stun gun on Black. During a struggle on the porch of his family’s home, Black lost consciousness as Manos, Lannon and Webster held him down.

Black’s mother was standing nearby, and yelled her son’s name, begging him to respond. Black was later pronounced dead at a hospital.

“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 stated.

US District Judge Catherine Blake declined to throw out the lawsuit in January, saying that the body camera footage did not decisively contradict the family’s account of events. The judge stated that a jury “could reach more than one conclusion” about whether the officers’ use of force was appropriate.

A county prosecutor did not ask a grand jury to consider criminal charges in Black’s death.

Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland are among those representing Black’s family. The group called the settlement a “milestone” on Monday.

The family and the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black filed their lawsuit in December 2020. The suit said Black’s death was “chillingly similar” to that of George Floyd, the Black American whose May 25, 2020 killing by a Minneapolis police officer led to global protests against racial injustice and police abuses.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Washington and published in The Lancet in 2021 concluded that Black Americans are 3.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans, and that US police killings are substantially undercounted.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies