When Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kristen Clarke made her first “listening stop” at the Holmes County Court Complex in Lexington on June 1, a broad coalition of civil rights advocates wanted her to focus on the long list of police abuses and harassment they have catalogued against the city in recent years.
Although Clarke’s stated mission was to look into the lingering presence of 32 segregated school districts and recurring violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 within those school systems in Mississippi and other Southern states, the coalition led by Attorney Jill Collen Jefferson called on Clarke to investigate the ongoing “terror” that Lexington’s Black community has been facing at the hands of the city’s police.
Jefferson is a Harvard Law School graduate and a native of Jones County, MS. The founder-president of JULIAN, a civil rights and human rights organization that filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Lexington plaintiffs in August 2022, Jefferson said she hoped Clarke would “seriously address the issues, and not gloss over them.”
Clarke met with a group of about 60 community members, but representatives of the press were not allowed.
After delivering her prepared remarks, Clarke reportedly listened to representative voices of Lexington’s Black community about allegations of police brutality there. An ongoing federal lawsuit claimed police have “terrorized” Black residents by subjecting them to false arrests, excessive force, and intimidation.
No announcement was made about whether the Justice Department would lend its support to Lexington’s Black community in its legal struggle against the local government and its police force.
BATTLE OF LEXINGTON
“Lexington is a tiny and deeply segregated town in Holmes County, Mississippi – one of the poorest counties in the nation. Lexington is home to less than 1,800 people – approximately 1,500 of whom are Black and 300 are white,” Jefferson points out. “But this overwhelmingly Black (80 percent) populated town is controlled by a white mayor, a white police chief until last year, and one powerful white family.”
Jefferson’s organization JULIAN, named in honor of the late civil rights activist and former Georgia state senator Julian Bond, filed the federal lawsuit last August against the city of Lexington, the police department, the interim police chief and several individuals on behalf of five Black plaintiffs.
The lawsuit claims that the 1st, 4th, and 14th Amendments rights of the five plaintiffs were repeatedly violated by the city and its police. Local citizens were not free of unreasonable searches and seizures or free from excessive force. And their 1st Amendment right to be free from retaliation and intimidation for speaking out against police harassment and abuse were fragrantly ignored, the plaintiffs claim.
The targeting of Blacks and the brutality allegedly reached its high point on April 8, 2022, after a Black community meeting with the theme “Know Your Rights” was called to address the many grievances against the Lexington Police Department. The following day, two of the most outspoken members of the community were falsely arrested, the lawsuit charges. Three additional plaintiffs were added to the lawsuit.
“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,” the lawsuit says. “LPD has violated Black Lexington citizens’ constitutional rights incessantly for over a year and continues to do so today.”
Reflective of the chaotic environment within the department, the plaintiffs claim that “23 officers have resigned from LPD within the past year after refusing to go along with the city’s culture of corruption. Some officers have reported seeing other officers pull civilians from the backs of patrol cars and brutally beat them.”
An incriminating secret recording of then-Police Chief Sam Dobbins was made a part of the official record in the summer of 2022. Dobbins is heard telling an LPD officer that he would not care if the officer “killed a mother….. in cold blood.” In the same 17-minute recording, Dobbins boasted that he had killed 13 people in his career and even justified shooting one man who was running away from him 119 times. Dobbins felt comfortable in his belief that the Lexington community “feared” him too much to attempt to restrict his policing practices, the lawsuit says.
The Lexington Board of Aldermen, however, voted Sam Dobbins out as Lexington police chief on July 20, 2022, after the release of the recording.
On August 16, 2022, JULIAN filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court against the city, the police department, and Dobbins personally, alleging that under his leadership the police department subjected its 80 percent Black population to discriminatory policing in violation of the 1st, 4th, and 14th Amendments rights and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“We filed a suit against Lexington last year in August. We have a court date for that suit in June of next year,” Jefferson said. “In the interim, we’re doing our groundwork. There are still police abuses and violation of constitutional rights that are going on there.”
The five plaintiffs are Robert Harris, his brother Darius Harris, Eric Redmond, Malcolm Stewart, and Peter Reeves. The defendants are former Chief Dobbins, Interim Chief Charles Henderson, the City of Lexington, and the Lexington Police Department.
Jefferson said they will also be filing an additional class action suit against the city and individual corrupt officers in an attempt to put an end to the continued police abuse.
“We wanted to test the waters with the first suit,” Jefferson said. “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. We’ve pushed for policy changes as well. The Board of Aldermen has rejected every single policy change we’ve put in front of them. Even the policy change 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 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”
The police falsely arrested Eric Redmond, a former Lexington police officer, she said, after he had gone to the police station to get his sister out of jail. He was told beforehand that the bail was $700. But when he took them the $700, they told him he had to pay $2,000 instead. He then said he wanted to talk to the police chief. One of the officers arrested him when he said that he would not leave until he spoke to the chief. Redmond was held in jail overnight.
Peter Reeves was stopped during a roadblock, Jefferson says. He had a filled prescription of Tylenol in the car that belonged to his uncle, a Vietnam war veteran. Reeves would take his uncle back and forth for his doctor’s appointments. The police arrested him for possession of a controlled substance, the attorney said.
Reeves contends that he has an actionable claim against the city for violation of his rights under the 4th Amendment’s prohibitions against unreasonable searches and seizures and the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause relating to the city’s roadblock policy. The only other actionable claim by a plaintiff, the court ruled, was Eric Redmond’s 4th Amendment false arrest claim.
Jefferson said she and her legal team will develop their case on behalf of Reeves and Redmond in coming months.
In his April 11 ruling, federal Judge Tom Lee dismissed all but three of the complaints filed on behalf of the five plaintiffs. He determined that only Peter Reeves and Eric Redmond have actionable claims against the city and its police department.
“Reeves has asserted an actionable claim against the City for violation of his rights under the 4th Amendment and the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause relating to the City’s roadblock policy,” the judge ruled. “The only other actionable claim by any plaintiff is Eric Redmond’s 4th Amendment false arrest claim.”
Jefferson says she is at work in preparing a class action suit that will soon be submitted to the court.