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Civil rights lawsuit pending against...

Civil rights lawsuit pending against Lexington Police Department

By: Anne Summerhays - May 24, 2023

A Lexington, Miss., police cruiser patrols near the town square, Monday, Aug. 15, 2022. A civil rights and international human rights organization filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday, against local officials in Lexington, where they say police have "terrorized" residents, subjecting them to false arrests, excessive force and intimidation. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

A public interest law firm has sued the Lexington Police Department for alleged racial discrimination and has promised to bring a separate class action lawsuit against the City of Lexington and individual officers.

Last year, Sam Dobbins, the former police chief of the Lexington Police Department, was fired due to leaked audio which allegedly captured him using racial slurs, in addition to telling one of his officers he wouldn’t care if the officer “killed a m*therf**ker in cold blood,” and that he, himself, had killed 13 people in the line of duty.

Soon after the recording was released, JULIAN, a non-profit civil rights and international human rights organization, filed a lawsuit against the Lexington Police Department on behalf of five residents who claimed to be victims of mistreatment by officers.

Plaintiffs in the case are Robert Harris, Darius Harris, Eric Redmond, Malcolm Stewart, and Peter Reeves. The defendants are Dobbins, Charles Henderson, who replaced Dobbins as Interim Chief, the City of Lexington, and the Lexington Police Department.

“This country prohibits all public officials, including police officers, from discriminating against people on the basis of race,” the lawsuit states. “The City of Lexington, Mississippi, does not follow that law. Lexington Police Department (LPD) operates within a culture of corruption and lawlessness, daily and habitually subjecting Black citizens to harassment and brutality, in violation of their constitutional rights.”

Magnolia Tribune reached out to the Lexington Police Department for comment on the lawsuit, but was told the Department had no statement to make. We also reached out to the Attorney General’s office for comment, but by press time had not received a response. It is not uncommon for a defendant in the position of the Lexington Police Department to withhold comment while litigation is pending. In response to the lawsuit, the defendants have denied the claims made against them.

According to the Complaint filed in the case, over 80% of Lexington’s population of 1,800 is black. It adds that under the leadership of defendants Sam Dobbins and later Charles Henderson, “LPD has violated Black Lexington citizens’ constitutional rights incessantly for over a year and continues to do so today.”

The Complaint also alleges that throughout 2021 and 2022, “Plaintiffs and other Black Lexington citizens 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.”

In Dobbins’ Answer and Affirmative Defenses in response to the Complaint, he denied guilt of any actionable conduct and argued that the complaint should be dismissed.

Dobbins’ Answer raises a qualified immunity defense. A controversial legal doctrine, qualified immunity acts as shield against claims of government official misconduct when the official can show that the conduct was within the normal course and scope of employment. Qualified immunity can be breached in a civil rights action when a plaintiff can demonstrate that the conduct was outside the normal reasonable scope of that individual’s employment.

Additionally, the City of Lexington, Mississippi, the Lexington Police Department, and Charles Henderson, in his individual and official capacities as Interim Chief of Police of Lexington, Mississippi, submitted an Answer and Affirmative Defenses on the same day as Dobbins. They also denied any potential liability in the case.  

Jill Collen Jefferson, a civil rights and international human rights attorney and founder of JULIAN, spoke with the Magnolia Tribune about the ongoing lawsuit. She said that currently, the case is in discovery, which is the process of exchanging “information between the parties about the witnesses and evidence they will present at trial.”

“This case came about because the police in this tiny town, Lexington, it’s like 1,800 people, they’ve been terrorizing Black citizens,” Jefferson said. She claims that the police force arrested Black individuals for no reason, “beating them while they’re win custody, having constant road block where they’re harassing people.”

Jefferson believes the matter is something that should be front page news every day, but because it’s a small Mississippi town where there’s largely a “media desert there,” she says no-one is paying attention.

“But this has been going on for about two years now, where the cops every single day have been terrorizing people,” Jefferson asserted. “This is the worst police crisis in this country in the last fifty years.”

Jefferson acknowledged that the LPD has denied the claims being made against them. She indicated that this pattern was part of the problem, suggesting that the town and its police force have accepted no responsibility for anything that has happened.

“People have tried to make complaints to the city government. They’ve made complaints to the police. Well, we also know that the police have thrown out complaints that have been given to them,” Jefferson stated.

She claimed that just a couple of weeks ago, one of the defendants “knocked out” one of the plaintiffs in broad day light in a store. According to the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, Malcolm Stewart claimed an officer assaulted him in retaliation for the lawsuit. Police Chief Charles Henderson disputed Stewart’s accusation.

Jefferson said that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) are both involved. They have reached out to the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights, as well as the State Auditor’s Office over money that she says has been disappearing in Lexington. She mentioned her group has called in “everybody, every possible entity.” According to Jefferson, they had a conversation with the State Auditor’s Office and haven’t heard back from them yet, but the FBI is actively investigating the complaints.

“The Auditor’s office cannot confirm or deny any potential or ongoing investigations,” said Fletcher Freeman, Communications Director at the Mississippi State Auditor’s Office.

Jefferson said they will also be filing an additional suit against the town, a class action suit against the city and individual corrupt officers for the continued police abuse.

“We wanted to test the waters with this first suit. With the second suit it’s going to be an all-out class action. So, we’re also looking for plaintiffs for that now and we’re just going to hammer them,” Jefferson stated. “We’ve pushed for policy changes as well. The Board of Alderman has rejected every single policy change we’ve put in front of them. Even one of the policy changes, it’s to correct the law that’s unconstitutional. Lexington has a city ordinance that says that you can arrest somebody if they curse at a police officer or a teacher. That’s against the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

“We’re going to keep pushing these policy changes and we’ll also be suing them for these changes if we need to,” Jefferson continued.

“The current ordinances must change to address the community’s concerns, improve quality of life, restore hope, and embrace unity – not just for the moment but for future generations,” Jefferson said. “This City has standards of governance that allow it to hire unfit police officers. There is no adequate process for addressing citizen complaints, which is a gross and dangerous lack of accountability.”

About the Author(s)
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Anne Summerhays

Anne Summerhays is a recent graduate of Millsaps College where she majored in Political Science, with minors in Sociology and American Studies. In 2021, she joined Y’all Politics as a Capitol Correspondent. Prior to making that move, she interned for a congressional office in Washington, D.C. and a multi-state government relations and public affairs firm in Jackson, Mississippi. While at Millsaps, Summerhays received a Legislative Fellowship with the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi where she worked with an active member of the Mississippi Legislature for the length of session. She has quickly established trust in the Capitol as a fair, honest, and hardworking young reporter. Her background in political science helps her cut through the noise to find and explain the truth. Email Anne: