Police in Mississippi 'terrorised' black residents, lawsuit alleges

Civil rights organisation accuses officers of making false arrests and using excessive force and intimidation

The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery in the US prompted calls to look at the police's use of excessive force against black citizens. AFP/ Getty
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US police have “terrorised” black residents in a small Mississippi town by subjecting them to false arrests, excessive force and intimidation, according to a federal lawsuit filed by a civil rights organisation.

The organisation, JULIAN, is seeking a temporary restraining order against the Lexington Police Department to demand protection for the town's largely black population. Lexington is about 100 kilometres north of the capital city of Jackson.

“It’s both unconscionable and illegal for Lexington residents to be terrorised and live in fear of the police department whose job is to protect them,” said Jill Collen Jefferson, president and founder of JULIAN.

The town's city lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The town's interim police chief, Charles Henderson, cast doubt on many of the allegations in response to an email request for comment from AP.

“I’m working on moving the Lexington Police Department forward,” Mr Henderson said. “I will say, don’t buy into everything you hear. This is defamation of character.”

The lawsuit comes after JULIAN said it obtained an audio recording in July of the Lexington Police chief at the time, Sam Dobbins, using racial slurs and talking about how many people he had killed in the line of duty. News organisations and a lawmaker who said he knows both the former chief and interim chief said Mr Dobbins is white and Henderson is black.

Mr Dobbins denied making the slurs, according to the Mississippi Centre For Investigative Reporting, which first reported on the recording. The AP was not able to find contact information for Mr Dobbins.

Robert Lee Hooker, a black police officer who later resigned from the department, told JULIAN and later the AP that he made the recording.

Lexington, Mississippi, police cruisers are parked outside their shared facility with the fire department. AP

The Lexington Board of Aldermen voted 3-2 to oust Mr Dobbins days after the recording came to light. Mr Henderson was named interim chief.

The suit requests unspecified compensatory damages. It asks the court to require Lexington to establish an independent civilian complaint review board that would investigate complaints from the public against the police department for abuse of authority.

“Lexington Police 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 suit reads.

In the recording, Mr Dobbins says he has killed 13 people during his career and uses expletives repeatedly to describe people. At one point, he uses the N-word when referencing someone he said he shot 119 times.

Citing specific confrontations last year and this year, the lawsuit alleges that members of the police department made false arrests, used excessive force and conducted unreasonable searches and seizures. JULIAN said more than 200 black citizens have formally or informally complained about being harassed, arrested, or fined for baseless reasons in the past year or so.

Allegations from inside the department are also cited in the lawsuit.

The suit also alleges that police retaliated against black community members who spoke at a meeting to discuss grievances with the department.

While most of the incidents occurred when Mr Dobbins was chief, the plaintiffs said the interim chief, Mr Henderson, is equally ill-suited to lead the force. According to the lawsuit, Henderson assaulted a tow-lorry driver who had been called to take away the car of Peter Reeves. He is a man whom Henderson had arrested and charged with a misdemeanour for having no auto insurance and an illegal window tint on his car.

Mr Reeves said from his vantage point sitting in the back of a patrol car, he could see Mr Henderson pressing Mr Farmer against the car and choking him.

“I mean, this guy is off his feet. I saw it with my own eyes,” he said.

The lawsuit also alleges that residents had to pay excessive fines. Mr Reeves' mother, Sherri Reeves told the AP on Monday that she ended up paying more than $600 in fines.

Updated: August 18, 2022, 2:17 PM