Town's Black Citizens Sue Police Department Over Mississippi 'Martial Law'

Black residents of a small Mississippi town have filed a lawsuit seeking protection from their police department.

The lawsuit, obtained by Newsweek, comes after Lexington's police chief was fired last month after he was heard allegedly using racist and homophobic slurs in a leaked audio recording.

In the recording, first reported by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, Sam Dobbins, who is white, also allegedly bragged about killing 13 people in the line of duty and used the n-word repeatedly, including to describe someone he says he shot 119 times.

Dobbins at the time told the outlet that he was unaware of a recording, denied using slurs and declined to comment on the alleged shootings. But the recording led to him being fired by a 3-2 vote of the city's Board of Aldermen.

Stock police photo
Above, lights flash on a police car at night. Black residents of a small Mississippi town are suing the police department, alleging it has a pattern of targeting and harassing Black residents. iStock

Despite this, Dobbins "continues to menace the community, patrolling in the passenger seat of a police-issued vehicle with an on-duty officer," the lawsuit alleges.

The complaint, filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, says there is a pattern and culture of racism at the police department that requires further investigation and accountability.

"The culture of Lexington is corrupt," the lawsuit states. "The city is in a sense under its own martial law with Black citizens held hostage to the police, afraid to even move."

The lawsuit alleges the police department has a pattern of using "disproportionate and unnecessary force" against Black residents, making false arrests and retaliating against officers who report misconduct.

The department "operates within a culture of corruption and lawlessness, daily and habitually subjecting Black citizens to targeting, harassment, and brutality, including violence, in violation of their constitutional rights," the lawsuit states.

That has continued under Charles Henderson, who was appointed interim chief after Dobbins was fired, according to the lawsuit.

Henderson "played a pivotal role in many of the constitutional violations...and LPD, now under his command, has continued to target and harass Black residents," the lawsuit says.

Newsweek reached out to Henderson, Dobbins, and the city of Lexington for comment. A spokesperson for the Lexington Police Department declined to comment on the lawsuit when contacted by Newsweek.

The lawsuit, which lists Dobbins, Henderson, the city of Lexington and the Lexington Police Department as defendants, is seeking compensatory and punitive damages to be determined at trial.

It is asking the court to declare that the police department's "policy, practice, and/or custom of targeting, threatening, coercing, assaulting, and harassing these Plaintiffs and other Black Lexington citizens" violates the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. It also asks the court to issue a temporary restraining order against Lexington's police department.

Additionally, the lawsuit is asking the court to appoint a receiver to ensure the safety of dozens as injunctions take effect and until officials appoint "a new, just" police force.

JULIAN, the civil rights and legal advocacy organization that filed the lawsuit on behalf of five Black plaintiffs, has also requested a federal investigation of systemic racism in the police department and the town's municipal government.

Newsweek reached out to the Department of Justice for comment.

Eighty-five percent of the town's population is Black, but the town's leaders are all white, according to the lawsuit. Black residents began filing official complaints against the police department with Mayor Robin McCrory and the city's Board of Aldermen in July 2021.

"Despite numerous citizen complaints, the constitutional violations have only worsened," the lawsuit states.

Over 200 Black residents have formally or informally complained about being harassed, arrested or fined for baseless reasons in the past year, according to the lawsuit, which also states that the police department allegedly has a "history of targeting" plaintiffs Robert and Darius Harris.

Among the encounters detailed in the suit is an incident on New Year's Eve 2021 when officers threatened to arrest the brothers for shooting fireworks. According to the lawsuit, the conduct the officers cited as violating the law was not prohibited.

After the brothers told the officers to vacate their premises, officers tased Darius Harris "suddenly and without warning" and arrested him.

Things got worse after Lexington residents held a meeting on April 7, where the brothers "spoke openly to the audience about their experience" with the police department. Within 24 hours, officers "falsely arrested" the brothers again, the lawsuit said.

Another plaintiff, Michael Stewart, was arrested two days after taking part in the meeting. The police department said there was a warrant for Stewart's arrest but never showed it to him, according to the lawsuit.

The tactics employed by the department against the town's Black citizens are similar to "those recommended for use by the United States Army to quell armed rioters in occupied nations," the lawsuit states. "These tactics are wholly unnecessary on peaceful Americans."

Twenty-three officers have resigned in the past year after "refusing to go along with the city's culture of corruption," according to the lawsuit, which added that some reported seeing other officers pull civilians out of the backs of patrol cars and beat them.

According to JULIAN, some have uprooted their lives and left Lexington because of police harassment. Tasha Walden said harassment led by Dobbins drove her to move her family to Memphis, Tennessee.

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

"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," said Jill Collen Jefferson, president and founder of JULIAN. "We need both the courts and the Department of Justice to step in immediately."