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After Police Chief’s Racist Tirade, Mississippi City Lands in Court

After Police Chief’s Racist Tirade, Mississippi City Lands in Court

After Police Chief’s Racist Tirade, Mississippi City Lands in Court

A civil rights organization in a small Mississippi community is suing the local police department alleging it has harassed and bullied the town’s Black residents for years. The group also wants the US Department of Justice to investigate.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in US District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, comes just weeks after city officials in Lexington, Mississippi, fired police chief Sam Dobbins, who had been recorded using racist and homophobic slurs and bragging about brutalizing citizens and having killed 13 people in the line of duty.

In the suit, the advocacy group Julian accuses the department and city of a pattern of racist policing that has terrorized the town’s Black residents and violated their constitutional rights. Specifically, the organization alleges that police in the central Mississippi town of 1,600 residents — 85% of whom are Black — routinely harass residents with traffic stops, false arrests, excessive fees and bullying tactics. More than 200 Black residents have formally lodged complaints against the department with the mayor and the city’s board of aldermen, to no avail, according to the suit.

“Plaintiffs and other Black Lexington residents have been falsely arrested, forced to undergo baseless searches and seizures at roadblocks, and [subject] to unnecessary force when they verbally object to police mistreatment,” the suit said. “An almost continuous pattern of conduct on the part of LPD of harassment, coercion, threatening conduct and often brutal mistreatment toward these plaintiffs and other Black Lexington citizens.”

The suit also names former police chief Dobbins, who was fired in July after a recording of a racist tirade was made public. The recording was made by a Black former officer who had confronted Dobbins over a past dispute. The former officer did not respond to a request for comment. Neither the mayor nor the two aldermen who voted to keep Dobbins returned calls seeking comment.

On the recording, which was first reported by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, Dobbins can be heard bragging about brutalizing Lexington residents and claiming to have killed 13 people in the line of duty. “I shot that n----- 119 times,” he said, using a racial slur. When reached, Dobbins declined to comment, citing the advice of his attorney.

It’s unclear if Dobbins’ claim of having killed more than a dozen people in the line of duty is true. He’d been chief for a year before his firing, serving as a patrol officer prior to that. According to Mapping Police Violence, a nonprofit database project, 144 individuals have been killed by Mississippi police officers since 2013, but only one occurred in Lexington and Holmes County. It’s unknown whether Dobbins had worked for any other departments or in any other states.

The actions of Dobbins and the police department caused significant harm in the community, some residents said.

Lexington resident Eric Redmond, a plaintiff in the suit, said his sister was arrested for delinquent fines this year, adding that when he went to the police station to pay a $700 bond, he was told that the fee had changed to $2,000. When he objected, he was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. However, he was not informed of his charges or read his rights until he arrived at the regional jail, and did not receive his bond amount until the next morning, according to the suit. He said the fines his sister owed were at least 12 years old and that police said they totaled about $4,000. 

Redmond, who is a fire chief in a neighboring jurisdiction, continues to work but said he could lose his job if the charges stick. He has an Aug. 25 court appearance on the misdemeanor changes. Treatment of Lexington residents by police has changed how he views law enforcement, he said.

“People were being arrested who had never been in contact with the law,” he said. “People were afraid to go to the grocery store because they were being harassed. I really didn’t know how to take it.”

In addition to monetary damages, the lawsuit seeks to establish an independent civilian review board to serve as a watchdog and oversee cases of police misconduct.

Jill Collen Jefferson, president and founder of Julian, wants a federal investigation into the department to protect the city’s Black residents. “This is the culture of the city,” Collen Jefferson said. “This is the police department, this is city administrators, this is the culture that is so deep. This town, the way it administers justice, the way it treats its Black citizens, routinely violates the Constitution.”

The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s office said it would not comment on an ongoing investigation. The office of Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves did not respond to a request for comment. 

There have been several high-profile federal interventions in local police departments to curb abuses, which have had varying levels of success. After the fatal shooting of an unarmed Black teenager in Cincinnati in 2001, the Department of Justice stepped in to monitor the department’s use of force. While that reform effort was considered successful for a time, the department was accused of backsliding at the end of the federal monitoring.

Such DOJ interventions are uncommon, according to Allan Jiao, a criminal justice professor at Rowan University. In 1997, Pittsburgh became the first police department subject to a federal consent decree. Since then, the Justice Department has launched roughly 70 investigations into police departments, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. “It’s usually pretty severe cases. They have limited resources. There are 18,000 police departments in the country,” Jiao added.

Under the administration of former President Donald Trump, the Justice Department pulled back on such interventions. Most recently, US Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the DOJ would investigate the Minneapolis and Louisville police departments in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, though there hasn’t been an official decree yet.

States can use the framework and come to these agreements as well, Jiao added. In 2019, during the pullback under the Trump administration, the Illinois attorney general came to an agreement with Chicago’s police department over its alleged misconduct.

Intervening with the police departments of such a small town wouldn’t be unprecedented for the Justice Department: Federal authorities have launched investigations into the police departments of Ville Platte, Louisiana, and Colorado City, Arizona.

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