Black residents in a small Delta town have been subjected to excessive force, intimidation and false arrests by its police force for over a year, a federal lawsuit alleges.
JULIAN, a civil rights organization, is asking the court to issue a temporary restraining order against the Lexington Police Department to prevent mistreatment against 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, said in a statement.
Subjects of the lawsuit are the city, police department, Interim Police Chief Charles Henderson and former Chief Sam Dobbins. The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.
Lexington, which has a population of about 1,800 people, is 86% Black. It is located in one of the state’s poorest counties – Holmes County.
The lawsuit says former chief Dobbins and interim chief have violated Black residents’ constitutional rights for over a year and continue to. That behavior has included retaliation against residents who speak out against police, false arrests, baseless vehicle searches and unreasonable force by police.
Over 200 Black citizens formally or informally complained about treatment by Lexington police in the past year, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit comes a month after an audio recording surfaced of Dobbins making racist and homophobic language and bragging about killing multiple people as a member of the police force.
Robert Lee Hooker, a Black officer who resigned from the Lexington police department, recorded the conversation with Dobbins and gave it to JULIAN. The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting first reported the recording.
“Justified, bro’,” Dobbins said in the recording. “I shot that n—– 119 times, OK?”
“I don’t give a f— if you kill a motherf—er in cold blood,” he said in another portion of the recording.
A day later, the Board of Aldermen fired Dobbins in a 3-2 vote and made Henderson the interim chief.
When reached for comment about the lawsuit, Dobbins declined to comment to the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting Tuesday.
Five Black men who experienced retaliation, arrest and other mistreatment by Lexington police are plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Plaintiffs Robert and Darius Harris, who are brothers, were approached by officers on New Year’s Eve and threatened to arrest them for violating the city’s fireworks ordinance, according to the lawsuit. The men asked them to leave their home and verbally resisted the threats.
Stills from cell phone footage accompany what happened next: Robert Harris raising his hand to ask police to stand down as his brother stands behind him. Darius Harris on the ground after an officer used a taser on him. Police, including Dobbins, shining a flashlight and trying to give Darius Harris commands while he is still being tased. Officers arresting Darius Harris as he lays on the ground.
Plaintiffs are also asking the court to award the plaintiffs compensatory damages and punitive damages against Dobbins and Hendersen, attorneys fees and court costs.
Community members have also expressed concern about Henderson’s appointment. In its statement, JULIAN said he is a protege of Dobbins and also has a troubling reputation.
In the lawsuit, Henderson is accused of authorizing misconduct of Lexington police officers against Black residents. He has also used excessive force, including during an incident where he and a group of officers broke down the door of a 60-year-old woman’s home without a warrant, arrested her, hosed her down with a fire hose and left her outside during wintertime, according to the lawsuit.
Lexington Mayor Robin McCrory, City Attorney Katherine Barrett Riley and Henderson were not immediately available for comment Wednesday.
The organization has also contacted the U.S. Attorney’s Office and FBI to call for a federal investigation of systemic racism in both the city’s police department and municipal government as a whole.
“The culture of Lexington is corrupt,” the lawsuit states.