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Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, speaks during a news conference on August 5, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Mississippi Town's Black Residents 'Terrorized' by Racist Police Seek DOJ Probe

"We need both the courts and the Department of Justice to step in immediately," said the head of one civil rights group involved in a new lawsuit against Lexington and its police department.

Brett Wilkins

Black residents of Lexington, Mississippi are calling for a U.S. Justice Department probe of systemic racism in the town as they filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the municipality, its police department, and current and former police officials, including an ex-chief fired for racist boasts about shooting a fleeing man 119 times.

"The city is in a sense under its own martial law with Black citizens held hostage to the police, afraid to leave their homes."

The lawsuit—which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi—accuses the "deeply segregated" town of Lexington, the Lexington Police Department (LPD), former police Chief Sam Dobbins, and interim Chief Charles Henderson of subjecting Black residents to a pattern of excessive force, intimidation, and false arrests. More than 200 Black residents have complained about violations of their First, Fourth, and 14th Amendment rights.

The civil rights group and suit plaintiff JULIAN is seeking a temporary restraining order against the LPD, and has contacted the U.S. attorney's office and FBI to urge a federal investigation of systemic racism in the town and its police force.

"It's both unconscionable and illegal for Lexington residents to be terrorized and live in fear of the police department whose job is to protect them," JULIAN founder and president Jill Collen Jefferson said in a statement. "We need both the courts and the Department of Justice to step in immediately."

The suit, which notes that 23 LPD officers have resigned over the past year, alleges that "the culture of Lexington is corrupt" and that "the city is in a sense under its own martial law with Black citizens held hostage to the police, afraid to leave their homes."

"The targeting, harassment, and corruption run so deep that most community members are afraid to speak to civil rights attorneys and activists out of fear of retaliation," the document states. "Many of those who do talk do so only in the shelter of their homes or outside the city altogether. One woman even relocated her entire family to Memphis to escape LPD's targeting and harassment."

That woman, Tasha Walden, told Newsweek that Dobbins "made my and my sons' lives a living hell."

"He wrote me baseless tickets and made repeated excuses to arrest my son without a warrant," she explained. "I had to get help to put my son in a safe place so no harm came to him. I had to move him out of state to keep him protected from Sam Dobbins and the police working with him."

LPD's policing of Black residents resembles "those recommended for use by the United States Army to quell armed rioters in occupied nations," the lawsuit asserts. "These tactics are wholly unnecessary on peaceful Americans."

The Lexington Board of Aldermen voted 3-2 last month to fire Dobbins and promote Henderson after JULIAN published nearly 17 minutes of audio secretly recorded by former Black officer Robert Lee Hooker in which the former chief boasts that he has killed 13 people over the course of his career.

In the recording, Dobbins talks about killing Ralph Winston, a Black man who in 2012 was fleeing through a cornfield in an SUV when the ex-chief and Chief Deputy Ronnie Buchanan fired over 300 rounds at the vehicle.

"I shot that nigger 119 times," Dobbins brags in the recording, in which he also uses homophobic slurs and tells the other officer, "I don’t give a fuck if you kill a motherfucker in cold blood."

A witness told Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting that Dobbins and Buchanan executed Winston, who was mortally wounded and attempting to surrender.

"Ralph had plenty of bullet holes. He was already shot up. That man got out of his truck and had his shotgun in his hands and he surrendered," the witness said. "He put the shotgun up in the air with his back turned, and they shot him down."

The new lawsuit alleges that despite his termination, Dobbins "continues to menace the community, patrolling in the passenger seat of a police-issued vehicle with an on-duty officer."

The suit also raised concerns about Henderson, who "helped Dobbins carry out the department's targeting, harassment, and abuse of Black citizens as the chief's second-in-command" and "has continued to target and harass Black residents."

The document alleges Henderson and other LPD officers "broke down a woman's door without a warrant, maced her, arrested her absent probable cause for a crime without Mirandizing her, and hosed her down from head to toe with a fire hose, before leaving her outside. She was in her 60s. It was the middle of winter, and she had on nothing but a nightgown."

Lexington is a small, impoverished Delta town of around 1,800 residents in Holmes County about an hour's drive north of Jackson. The town—which is 85% Black—has long suffered racist violence and a culture of impunity, including the 1946 lynching of Leon McAtee, whose murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury after 10 minutes of deliberation despite a confession by one of the killers.

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