A small Mississippi town and its police department are being sued weeks after the police chief was fired after bragging about shooting and killing people in a racist and homophobic rant.
Five black Mississippians have filed a federal complaint seeking a restraining order against the Lexington Police Department to restrain officers from infringing on citizens’ constitutional rights, according to a copy of the complaint obtained by USA TODAY.
The lawsuit, brought by civil rights law firm JULIAN, seeks to stop Lexington law enforcement from “threatening, coercing, harassing, assaulting or interfering” with the city’s majority black population, a said the group. The lawsuit says the department has a history and practice of using excessive force, making false arrests and retaliating against officers who report misconduct.
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Last month, Police Chief Sam Dobbins was sacked by the city’s council after bragging in a secretly taped conversation with a former officer that he had shot a black man over 100 time. The recording was released to the media last month by JULIAN, who is based in Jackson, Mississippi.
The suit names Dobbins and acting leader Charles Henderson. Henderson and Lexington Mayor Robin McCrory did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Dobbins could not be immediately reached.
“We are bringing this lawsuit because we need to protect the black citizens of Lexington,” Jill Collen Jefferson, president and founder of JULIAN, told USA TODAY. “Their rights are routinely violated. They are intimidated, harassed, targeted, over and over and over again. And it didn’t stop with the firing of this police chief.”
JULIAN is also calling for a federal investigation into “systemic and condoned racism both in the police department and throughout the Lexington municipal government,” according to a news release.
After Dobbins was fired, Henderson told USA TODAY his new administration would have zero tolerance for racism.
“We’re trying to move forward,” Henderson previously said. “It’s not going to portray the way the Lexington Police Department is…we don’t engage in any type of racist activity.”
Lexington has a population of 1,600 and is approximately 60 miles north of Jackson. About 80% of the city, nearly 1,300 people, are black, according to census data.
Information on the size and racial makeup of the police department was not publicly available. Henderson previously told USA TODAY that the “relatively small” police department is about “80-85 percent black.”
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The lawsuit says more than 200 black citizens have formally or informally complained about police violence and misconduct over the past year.
Two of the complainants, brothers Robert and Darius Harris, said police had attempted to wrongfully arrest them for violating a fireworks ordinance on New Year’s Eve. The brothers said that while they fired fireworks, they weren’t breaking the law.
The couple “verbally resisted” arrest, and an officer used a stun gun on Darius Harris before taking him into custody, according to the lawsuit. In April, the brothers spoke about the incident at a community meeting. They were rearrested 24 hours later for “retaliation against an officer” and possession of marijuana, the lawsuit says.
Jefferson said the two men were among the most outspoken at the meeting, which led police to target them.
“They still haven’t beaten those charges,” she said.
Another plaintiff, Michael Stewart, attended the community meeting and was arrested two days later for unpaid fines, according to the lawsuit. Stewart, a mechanic, said he was told his fines were paid in full in July 2021 after spending a year and a half servicing police department vehicles, court documents show.
The lawsuit, filed at The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi seeks unspecified damages.