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Department of Justice launches investigation of Lexington Police for alleged civil rights violations

By: Jeremy Pittari - November 9, 2023

Newly appointed U.S. Attorney Todd Gee will work jointly with federal agency to determine if officers violated rights of African American residents

In August 2022, a civil rights lawsuit was filed against the Lexington Police Department alleging violations of African American citizens’ constitutional rights. Now, the U.S. Department of Justice has launched its own investigation into the allegations.

Lexington is a small city, comprised of approximately 1,600 people, the overwhelming majority of whom are African American. Last year, Sam Dobbins, the white 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 motherf–ker in cold blood,” and that he, himself, had killed 13 people in the line of duty.

In the wake of Dobbins dismissal, a civil rights organization, JULIAN, filed the lawsuit. The suit includes five Lexington residents as plaintiffs, Robert Harris, Eric Redmond, Malcolm Stewart and Peter Reeves. They claim in the suit to have been mistreated by officers of the city’s police department. Defendants in the case include Dobbins, the former chief, new Chief of Police Charles Henderson, the city of Lexington and the Lexington Police Department. 

JULIAN claims the Lexington police set up permanent roadblocks to harass African American residents and that officers conduct searches and seizures without probable cause. The lawsuit also claims an officer punched one of the named plaintiffs in the suit in broad daylight at a public business.

Wednesday, the Justice Department issued a release stating a formal investigation into the department is now underway and “will seek to determine where there are systemic violations of the Constitution and the federal law. The investigation will focus on the police department’s use of force and its stops, searches and arrests.”

The release goes on to say that the investigation will work to determine if those actions were non-discriminatory and whether the actions respected the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech and conduct. 

“No city or Town and no enforcement agency is too large or too small to evade our enforcement of the constitutional rights every American enjoys,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “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.”

Todd Gee, the recently appointed U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, will work in tandem with the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice on the investigation. 

“Police officers are trusted with the important duty to keep our communities safe. When police officers fail to respect constitutional rights, they violate that trust,”  Gee said on Wednesday. “Our office is committed to ensuring that everyone in Mississippi is treated fairly and lawfully by the police. Today’s announcement reflects that commitment. We will conduct a thorough and impartial investigation of LPD, and we will take decisive action to address any unlawful conduct.” 

According to Gee’s released statement, the Lexington Police Department was notified of the investigation prior to the announcement being sent to media outlets, and the department has indicated it will cooperate with the Justice Department during the investigation. 

“If the Justice Department has reasonable cause to believe that the law enforcement officers of a state or local government have engaged in a prohibited pattern or practice, the department is authorized to bring a lawsuit seeking court-ordered changes to remedy the violations,” the Justice Department release states. 

Gee says that everyone in the state expects to feel safe in their homes and in public, but that safety should not come through acts of illegal force or abuse of power. 

“The allegations of what has happened in Lexington are serious. I have been to Lexington, and I have met with members of the community. A thorough investigation of the Lexington police department is necessary.”

While he cautioned the the public to avoid judging the outcome of the investigation before it’s complete, he said he looks forward to hearing from more residents of the city as the investigation moves forward.

“But if we do find the Lexington police are engaging in a pattern or practice of civil rights violations, I hope we will arrive at remedies that ensure Lexington will have a police force that fights crime, protects the community’s civil rights and serves as a good example for small law enforcement agencies in rural communities throughout Mississippi and the nation,” Gee said in Wednesday’s release. 

Another lawsuit appears to have been filed in October of this year against the same department by the ACLU-MS and international law firm O’Melveny & Myers LLP for separate civil rights violations. That suit alleges the plaintiff, Alexis Jew, was wrongfully arrested on Dec. 14, 2021 and while in custody was informed by Dobbins she needed to pay cash in order to be released. Defendants listed in the suit include Henderson and Dobbins. The reason for the fine was not disclosed to Jew and the suit alleges records were falsified to cover up the absence of a proper legal process in relation to her arrest. 

About the Author(s)
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Jeremy Pittari

Jeremy Pittari is a lifelong resident of the Gulf Coast. Born and raised in Slidell, La., he moved to South Mississippi in the early 90s. Jeremy earned an associate in arts from Pearl River Community College and went on to attend the University of Southern Mississippi, where he earned a bachelor's of arts in journalism. A week after Hurricane Katrina, he started an internship as a reporter with the community newspaper in Pearl River County. After graduation, he accepted a full-time position at that news outlet where he covered the recovery process post Katrina in Pearl River and Hancock Counties. For nearly 17 years he wrote about local government, education, law enforcement, crime, business and a variety of other topics.