Aug 16, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Mississippi town sued over alleged pattern of discrimination against Black people

Photo of a Black Lives Matter sign standing next to a tree in front of a house
A Black Lives Matter yard sign in a residential neighborhood. Photo: Don & Melinda Crawford/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A civil rights organization has filed a lawsuit against officials in Lexington, Mississippi, calling for a federal investigation of police brutality on behalf of local Black residents after a white police chief’s racist remarks led to backlash in the town of 1,800 — about 80% of whom are Black.

Why it matters: Former police chief Sam Dobbins was recorded bragging about having shot and killed 13 people in the line of duty while using the n-word repeatedly. The city’s Board of Aldermen fired him in a 3-2 vote, but the lawsuit alleges it’s a pattern of "systemic, condoned racism" in the police and the larger municipal government.

Context: In the recording, Dobbins is heard saying, "I’ve killed 13 men in my career, justified."

  • While describing a shootout in a cornfield, he allegedly says, "I shot that n----- 119 times, OK?" He also uses anti-LGBTQ slurs at one point in the conversation, according to the audio.
  • Dobbins has denied using the slurs and claimed that killing people in the line of duty is "something we don’t discuss, period," per the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.

Driving the news: The lawsuit, filed by Julian, asks a federal district court to issue a temporary restraining order against the Lexington Police Department (LPD) and bar officers from "threatening, coercing, harassing, assaulting or interfering" with Lexington citizens’ constitutional rights.

What they're saying: The recording of Dobbins "establishes LPD's discriminatory intent" and proves that "by pattern, practice, and custom/policy he and thereby LPD encouraged officers to treat people brutally" based on race and sexual orientation, the complaint alleges.

  • "Over 200 Black citizens have formally or informally complained about being harassed, arrested, or fined for baseless reasons in the past year," including a 21-year-old Black man who was allegedly arrested on a traffic violation while he was shopping inside a convenience store, according to the complaint.
  • Some officers have reported "seeing other officers pull civilians from the backs of patrol cars and brutally beat them," the complaint states.
  • In one incident, interim police chief Charles Henderson allegedly "broke down a woman's door without a warrant, maced her, arrested her for no reason without Mirandizing her, and hosed her down from head to toe with a fire hose."
  • Henderson has also propositioned women for sex and ticketed or arrested them when they refused, the complaint claims.

Tasha Walden, who had lived in Lexington for more than 40 years, said she moved her family to Tennessee after Dobbins began regularly targeting her son, now 21, across town. Dobbins would issue fines for no reason, arrest him without warrants and harass him on the streets, even outside city limits where he had no jurisdiction, Walden told Axios.

  • “He would literally just terrorize people,” and Black people especially, she said, and added that she hopes to see Dobbins in jail.
  • “I’d say to everybody I’m so glad that I got my son out of there because who knows what would happen?”

“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, said in a statement.

  • “These people are putting their lives on the line. … Residents know they can be targeted if they file a complaint, that the cops can come for them — and will,” said Jefferson. “We need both the courts and the Department of Justice to step in immediately.”

LPD allegedly conducted roadblocks multiple times per day for several months — at least 300 within the past year — "for no legitimate purpose other than to surveil Black drivers and passengers."

  • People witnessed "authorities arrest multiple Black drivers at the roadblock while allowing White drivers to pass through unstopped," per the complaint.
  • Plaintiffs also allege that Dobbins, though removed from his position, "continues to menace the community, patrolling in the passenger seat of a police-issued vehicle with an on-duty officer."

Worth noting: Even though the town is majority-Black, the mayor, the city attorney, the city judge and the most recent police chief are all white, the lawsuit notes.

  • The mayor's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The LPD declined to comment.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with new details throughout.

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