The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has launched a civil pattern or practice investigation into possible “systemic violations of the Constitution and federal law” in a small Mississippi city where its disproportionately Black residents have accused local officials of terrorizing them with a host of civil rights violations.
The City of Lexington and its police department are at the center of the DOJ probe that stems from allegations against law enforcement, including the Lexington Police Department’s use of force and its stops, searches and arrests, officials announced on Wednesday.
“No city, no town and no law enforcement agency is too large or too small to evade our enforcement of the constitutional rights every American enjoys,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement. “We are opening this investigation to determine whether the Lexington Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing, excessive force or First Amendment violations. This investigation should send a clear message to small and mid-size police departments that they are not exempt from the obligation to provide fair, effective and non-discriminatory policing. We will leave no community behind, including underserved regions in the Deep South, in our quest to ensure lawful and constitutional policing in America.”
Lexington is located in Holmes County, where Census data indicates nearly 83% of its residents are Black.
Lexington is also the same Mississippi city that was the subject of a federal lawsuit just last year. Alleging false arrests, excessive force and intimidation, a local civil rights organization sued Lexington over the summer of 2022 in an effort to secure a temporary restraining order against the police on behalf of the city’s Black residents.
“It’s both unconscionable and illegal for Lexington residents to be terrorized and live in fear of the police department whose job is to protect them,” Jill Collen Jefferson, president and founder of JULIAN, the civil rights organization that sued Lexington, said in a statement. “We need both the courts and the Department of Justice to step in immediately.”
Jefferson previously described a community in crisis during an interview with NewsOne. Situated approximately an hour north of the capital city Jackson, Lexington is about 86% Black, with an estimated population of 1,576.
“Specifically, what the suit calls out and asks that the cops be restrained from doing is harassing, coercing, threatening, assaulting, all of those things that they’re doing to the Black citizens of Lexington,” Jefferson told NewsOne. “The other thing that this suit asks for apart from that is that there be a citizen complaint board set up.”
Jefferson also explained that the court could compel Lexington officials to request assistance from Mississippi’s governor. She said the governor could proactively intervene and direct officials to address documented issues with the Lexington police department.
“It is within his authority to send police there to make sure that the police in Lexington are not violating people’s rights,” she said.
The lawsuit was sparked after JULIAN shared a recording with the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting (MCIR), in which a police officer is heard boasting about killing 13 [N-words] while on duty, including a Black person he said he shot 119 times.
On the tape, the supervising officer can be heard saying, “You’re going to get some s— in the streets, and there’s only going to be one man fighting for you, and it’s going to be me, OK? Don’t ever ruin that, all right, because these other n—–s, they’re [unintelligible]. I don’t give a f— if you kill a mother—er in cold blood. I will articulate to fix the f—ing problem, and I’m the only man in the business here that’s smart enough to do it.”
The officer bragged about his past killings. “I have killed 13 men in my career, justified,” he said. “In my line of duty, I have shot and killed 13 different people.”
“You shot that many motherf—ers?” the other officer asked.
“Yes, sir, justified, bro’,” the officer asked. “Ask around.”
The officer began to detail some of those cases, saying, “I’m talking about a man had a gun, a man had to die.”
He described a shootout in a cornfield. “Justified, bro’,” he said. “I shot that n—– 119 times, OK? I saved 67 kids in a school.”
“I chased this motherf—er across the field. I got him. He was DRT [dead right there] in the field. The vehicle was shot 319 times, but he was hit 119 times by me.”
He said he was cleared at the sheriff’s office, where he worked at the time, and received his gun back before he ever sat back down.
When the subject arises of him talking to someone, he responded with homophobic slurs, “I don’t talk to f—ing queers, I don’t talk to f—ing fa——s.”
The officer was later identified as now-former Police Chief Sam Dobbins, who was reportedly fired after a 3-2 vote by the Lexington Board of Aldermen.
In 2021, Black residents in Lexington voiced their complaints about their local police department’s culture of racism and police brutality. Those residents include Shirley Gibson, a Black woman who was born and raised in Lexington.
“They bust up in my house,” Gibson told WLBT. “An officer caught me by my neck, slung me on the ground, they maced me not once but twice, they jumped on my son, they hit him, they stomped on his feet. I’m very terrified because this isn’t the first time they did this. They did not have a search warrant.”
More from the Associated Press:
The lawsuit comes after JULIAN said it obtained an audio recording in July of then-Lexington Police Chief Sam Dobbins using racial slurs and talking about how many people he had killed in the line of duty. News organizations and a lawmaker who said he knows both the former chief and interim chief said Dobbins is white and Henderson is Black.
Dobbins denied making the slurs, according to the Mississippi Center For Investigative Reporting, which first reported on the recording. The AP was not able to find contact information for Dobbins.
Robert Lee Hooker, a Black police officer who later resigned from the department, told JULIAN and later the AP that he made the recording.
The DOJ investigation is the federal law enforcement agency’s latest probe of a city and its police department facing local allegations of civil rights violations.
Last week, the DOJ announced it was investigating a pair of jails in South Carolina with reputations for violence including deaths and sexual abuse of inmates.
Days earlier, the DOJ said it was monitoring the police department in Jacksonville, Florida, after officers’ brutal beating of 24-year-old Le’Keian Woods in September.
As the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act languishes in Congress without legislators acting on federal police reform, the Biden Administration’s DOJ Civil Rights Division has apparently taken it upon itself to try to do what elected officials won’t.
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