By Heather Harrison - Mississippi Free Press (BHN)
LEXINGTON, Miss.--The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the City of Lexington, Miss., and its police department to determine whether there is a pattern of misconduct and constitutional violations, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Kristen Clarke announced at a Nov. 8 press conference.
The news follows years of accusations of misconduct against the city’s Black residents and the surfacing of the recording of a racist rant last year that resulted in the police chief’s ousting.
“Underserved communities in the Deep South will not be left behind as we carry out our work to ensure constitutional policing across America,” she said.
Clarke said the DOJ is determining “whether the police department uses excessive force; violates people’s civil and constitutional rights during stops, searches and arrests; engages in discriminatory policing; or violates people’s civil rights to engage in speech or conduct protected by the Constitution.” She said the DOJ had uncovered allegations through public records and interviews with community members.
The assistant attorney general said the DOJ will review the police department’s body-camera footage, incident reports, interactions with the public, internal documents, training materials and policies. Investigators will also meet and watch officers during their shifts and talk with community members to hear from all sides.
Lexington has about 1,600 residents; 86% of its population is Black and 29% of residents live in poverty, U.S. Census data shows. The Lexington Police Department has fewer than 10 officers, Clarke noted. About half of police departments in the U.S. have 10 or fewer officers, a report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice shows.
“The Lexington Police Department is one of the smallest we have investigated and one that represents most law-enforcement agencies in this country,” she said.
Lexington is in Holmes County, which in 1968 sent the first Black lawmaker to the Mississippi House since Reconstruction in 1968; Rep. Robert G. Clark later went on to become the Mississippi House speaker in 1992.
Lexington Police Arrested Civil-Rights Attorney
Kristen Clarke and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi Darren J. LaMarca visited Lexington on June 1 to “address civil-rights issues, including enforcing federal school desegregation orders, addressing jail and prison conditions and prosecuting hate crimes,” a Justice Department readout said. “The meeting focused on civil-rights issues, like law-enforcement accountability.”
Members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party said they “were feeling hopeful” after Clarke and LaMarca’s visit—but then Lexington police arrested civil-rights attorney Jill Collen Jefferson on June 10 while she was filming a traffic stop she saw when she was leaving an event.
Jefferson, a Jones County native, is the founder of JULIAN, an organization that investigates possible civil-rights violations. She named it after her mentor, civil-rights leader Julian Bond.
Her arrest came nine days after she spoke out against the Lexington Police Department’s treatment of Black people during a conversation with U.S. Justice Department officials. Authorities released Jefferson from jail on June 12.
Jefferson recounted her arrest to reporters in a video her attorney Michael Carr sent to the Mississippi Free Press in June. She said she was driving a passenger around when she noticed police officers had pulled someone over, so she started filming the encounter. Her passenger got out of the car in fear that the police would pull over Jefferson for filming them.
“As soon as the cops saw me, Officer Scott Walters started flagging me down with his flashlight,” Jefferson told reporters. “I stopped, I let my window down, and he said, ‘Show me your ID.’ I said, ‘Why do you need to see my ID?’ … And then he pulled out his taser. And I said, ‘You’re going to tase me?’ And that point, I called my attorney. He said, ‘Jill, of course this is not right, but just show them your ID so you can get this over with.’”
Jefferson said she followed her lawyer’s advice, but the situation continued to escalate.
“I held up my license. At that point, Officer Walters snatched my phone out of my hand, he slammed it on the top of the car,” she said. “He started trying to yank at my door handle, trying to pull it open. My car door was locked. He reached through the window and unlocked my car door through the inside. He pulled the door open, pulled me out of the car, pushed me against the car, and then proceeded to arrest me—cuff me. He put my hands behind my back. I did not resist.”
Then the officer put Jefferson in the back of a police car and another officer helped Walters search her car, she said.
“Then they went to the driver’s side, and Officer Walters knelt down and put his hand under the seat and he said, ‘Oh, looky here.’ He’d found my firearm,” she said. “And he said, ‘I sure hope it’s stolen.’ At that point, he came back to the police car. I told him the search was illegal. He told me he would never hire me. He told me I was a shit lawyer since I didn’t know about search incident to arrest. He told me I was being arrested for failure to comply. I told him I had not done anything wrong. He said nothing and shut the car door. He took me to the police station.”
‘I Shot That N—r 119 Times’
A Lexington police officer boasted about shooting a Black man, saying he “shot that n—r 119 times” and that he did not “give a f–k if you kill a motherf–ker in cold blood,” in a recording JULIAN shared with the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting in July 2022. JULIAN claimed then-Police Chief Sam Dobbins was the speaker in the audio recording, and the City of Lexington voted to fire him a few days later.
In August 2022, JULIAN filed a lawsuit against the Lexington Police Department, alleging that it “operates within a culture of corruption and lawlessness, daily and habitually subjecting Black citizens to harassment and brutality, in violation of their civil rights.”
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said the Department of Justice will announce its findings to the public once the investigation concludes.
U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi Todd Gee said if the investigation shows misconduct on the part of Lexington police, he hopes the department will be willing to cooperate to reach improvements.
“If our investigation determines that the Lexington Police Department has committed a pattern or practice of civil-rights violations, I hope the remedies that we reach will ensure that that police force can both fight crime, protect the civil rights of the community and also serve as a good example for small, rural law enforcement agencies throughout Mississippi and the nation,” he said at the press conference.
People who have information that could help the investigation can contact the Justice Department by calling 833-610-1232, emailing email@example.com or visiting its website at www.civilrights.justice.gov. Gee said people can report other civil rights violations to the U.S. attorney’s office at 601-973-2825 or USAMSS.firstname.lastname@example.org.