Lexington, Mississippi has some important things in common with Ferguson, Missouri, the St. Louis suburb that was exposed nationally for its discriminatory police practices in 2014. Lexington has a 79-17 percent Black to white population base, while Ferguson has a 67-29 Black/white ratio. White mayors and white police chiefs ruled Ferguson, as was the case in Lexington until recently. Black people just went about their lives as second-class citizens in both places, paying the recurring traffic fines and misdemeanor court penalties that never seemed to stop coming but were the lifeblood of the city finances.
With their large numbers, Black people should have been guaranteed self-governance if not class-A status in their respective communities. Instead, they were “targeted,” say a number of the community advocates for change.
The slaying of teenager Michael Brown by a white Ferguson cop in 2014 gave rise to the “Hands up, don’t shoot” meme that was used by protest groups in many subsequent shootings. Since then, Ferguson elected Ella Jones as mayor in 2020, the first female and first Black mayor in Ferguson’s history. On May 9, 2022, the Ferguson Police Department swore in Delrish Moss as its first Black police chief.
Slightly different changes have recently come about in Lexington with the firing of white police chief Sam Dobbins, who was caught on an audio recording saying to one of his Black officers, “I don’t give a (expletive) if you kill a (racist expletive deleted) in cold blood, I will articulate in fixing the (expletive) problem.”
The Lexington board of aldermen voted 3-2 on July 20 to fire Sam Dobbins immediately. The mayor agreed with the decision.
Holmes County Sheriff Willie March said he also agreed with the Lexington board of aldermen’s decision to fire Dobbins.
March said that he had addressed the board earlier this year about Dobbins’ practice of locking up suspects with medical conditions rather than taking them to a doctor or proper medical facility. After March’s complaint, Dobbins would simply take the suspects with the medical issues to jails in another county.
Lexington police officer Robert Lee Hooker captured the words of Dobbins on tape and said it was routine with him to record day-to-day events in his life. He has worked in law enforcement for 19 years, he said.
“I’ve documented my life over the last 20-25 years,” Hooker says.
In one section of the recording, Dobbins claims boldly to have “shot and killed in the line of duty 13 different people.”
He also boasts of having shot a Black man 119 times.
“I shot that (racist expletive deleted) 119 times,” the voice identified as Dobbins says. “Okay, I mean I saved 67 kids. That vehicle was shot 319 times. But he was hit 119 times by me.”
The audio tape was released by Cardell Wright, the president of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party of Lexington and Holmes County, and the organization JULIAN, a civil rights and human rights organization.
“We’re trying to get the Department of Justice and the FBI to come in and do an independent investigation of Sam Dobbins’ history as an officer,” Wright said. “He admitted a lot of things on the recording, and we want to see whether there were any obstructions of justice, or cover ups. And of the 13 people he confessed to killing, were they all Black people?”
Retired educator and community advocate Sherri Reeves was awakened after 2 a.m. on March 6 to learn that her son Peter had been arrested and charged with possessing a controlled substance. He was carrying a bottle containing several prescribed Tylenol tablets when stopped at a late-night police roadblock in Lexington, she said. She called the mayor later that same day.
“I alerted the mayor about it,” she said. “And I alerted the sheriff about it. The mayor wanted me to speak to the chief, and I refused to. I had nothing to say to him. I knew that if I had said something, they could have trumped up something I did not say. So, I did not want to speak to him. I had heard from previous people who had been harassed by him here in the city of Lexington.”
Dobbins was reputed as belittling people who spoke directly to him, Reeves said.
“I was going all the way to Washington, D.C. if I needed to,” she said. “If the sheriff of the county (Willie March) is complaining and not getting heard, what is it going to take?”
Reeves said she has been working with a number of community organizations and other activists in Lexington to solve the problem of police misbehavior. Thanks to the recording by Hooker, she said, something has been done, although she disagrees with the choice of Investigator Charles Henderson, the second highest ranking officer under Dobbins, as interim police chief.
“No, we’re not satisfied,” Reeves said. “We had a town hall meeting the other night. Henderson was one of Dobbins’ henchmen. He was going around at the chief’s instructions harassing people.
“We’ve had one small victory, but the war has not been won yet.”
Mayor Robin McCrory poses a dilemma for a good portion of her Black support in Lexington.
While Reeves felt she and McCrory were on friendly terms, and she had given McCrory her support in the last election, the fact remains that McCrory had orchestrated the hiring of Sam Dobbins as chief.
“When you have rural communities like ours with a history of racial inequities, what we can say about the white people is that they get in power because we allow them to. They sell us a bill of goods and we buy it,” Reeves said.
Hooker says that McCrory had a positive relationship with Lexington’s Black community until the hiring of Dobbins.
“She has had great relations with the Black community,” Hooker said. “I think she was responsible for registering people to vote in the county. Her father played a pivotal role in voter registration as an official in the county.”
In the end, however, Hooker said the mayor proved to be a disappointment.
“She fooled a lot of people,” Hooker said.