Mississippi cops sued over alleged civil rights violations against Black residents

The suit contends Lexington, Mississippi officers harassed Black residents.

August 18, 2022, 12:50 PM

A month after the police chief of a Mississippi town was fired following leaked audio allegedly of him using racial slurs, a civil rights group is suing the department.

Jill Colin Jefferson, the founder of the civil rights organization Julian, filed a lawsuit against Lexington, Mississippi, its police department, and others on behalf of five residents who claimed to have been victims of mistreatment by officers.

The lawsuit contends that the police force has had a long history of racially profiling its Black residents including with alleged targeted traffic stops, harassment and retaliation for speaking out against cops.

The suit contends the plaintiffs have "been falsely arrested, forced to undergo baseless searches and seizures at roadblocks, and subjected to unreasonable force by LPD officers when they verbally object to police mistreatment," among other incidents experienced by Black residents over the last two years.

PHOTO: A Lexington, Miss., police cruiser is parked outside their facility near the town square, Aug. 15, 2022.
A Lexington, Miss., police cruiser is parked outside their facility near the town square, Aug. 15, 2022.
Rogelio V. Solis/AP

Roughly 1,500 of Lexington's 1,800 residents are Black, according to the suit.

Jefferson told ABC News Live that the suit stems from the department's operation under former police chief Sam Dobbins, who is one of the defendants in the suit. Last month, Dobbins was fired after audio from a conversation he allegedly had with other officers was leaked in which he allegedly used racial slurs against Black people.

Jefferson contends that Dobbins still has a presence over the police force due to his time spent training and instructing officers.

"The way that this town functions is that it continues to function in his shadow. His dominance is still there," Jefferson told ABC News.

The Lexington Police Department and Lexington's mayor's office didn't respond to requests for comment from ABC News about the suit. Dobbins told the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, which released the audio, that he didn't use racial or other slurs, adding, "I don't talk like that," when he was asked about his recorded comments in July.

The suit cites a few examples of police misconduct against Black Lexington residents.

One was an alleged incident involving brothers Darius and Robert Harris, who were approached by officers on New Year's Eve. The officers allegedly cited the brothers for using fireworks on Robert Harris's private property and violating a city ordinance, according to the suit.

During the incident, which was filmed, officers allegedly tased Darius Harris, the suit said.

Jefferson told ABC News that Dobbins then harassed her client while he was still in pain.

PHOTO: Jill Collen Jefferson has filed a lawsuit against the Lexington Police Department,  contending officers mistreated Black residents.
Jill Collen Jefferson has filed a lawsuit against the Lexington Police Department, contending officers mistreated Black residents.
ABC News

"Sam Dobbins went to Darius and actually showed his flashlight in his face when he's on the ground and told him to put his hands behind his back. At that moment, that was physically impossible," she said.

The lawsuit doesn't cite charges filed against Darius Harris, but details an alleged pattern of retaliation by police officers against both Harris brothers.

In another example, the suit cited a March incident involving plaintiff Peter Reeves, who criticized a police officer on social media. Reeves was allegedly stopped at a roadblock by the same officer, according to the suit.

Reeves was charged with felony possession of a controlled substance because he had a Tylenol bottle in his vehicle, the suit contends.

Jefferson said other Black residents have been subjected to roadblocks by the police. Tasha Walden, a Lexington resident, told ABC News, that in addition to the roadblocks, she's seen and experienced officers following Black residents outside the city limits.

PHOTO: Tasha Walden, a Lexington, Mississippi resident, claims she experienced police harassment.
Tasha Walden, a Lexington, Mississippi resident, claims she experienced police harassment.
ABC News

"It's more than me, it's basically 99% of the Black [community]," she told ABC News.

The suit is seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

Jefferson said she wants more policy changes to the police department to be enacted by the city government and better accountability when residents file complaints against officers.

Last year, more than 200 complaints were filed against the police department, the suit said.

PHOTO: A Lexington, Miss., police cruiser is parked outside their facility near the town square, Aug. 15, 2022.
A Lexington, Miss., police cruiser is parked outside their facility near the town square, Aug. 15, 2022.
Rogelio V. Solis/AP

"That's the other thing we need...a civilian complaint review board to actually review these complaints as they come in, because right now they're just being swept under the rug," she said. "But on a larger level, we need a federal investigation into what is happening in Lexington, not just of this police department or one of two or one or two officers, but this entire municipality."

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