A flagrantly racist and violent ex-cop is bringing national attention to a small town in Mississippi where Black residents say they were systematically “terrorized” by police and the court system. Civil rights advocates condemn the officer’s actions and say they are a symptom of a larger problem that extends far beyond one rural community and a “bad apple” among the local police.
A federal lawsuit claims that white police officers in Lexington, Mississippi, a rural town dominated by Blacks, targeted Black residents and made false arrests, brutality and subjected them to unreasonable searches. The department’s discriminatory intent was made clear by a leaked recording of Sam Dobbins, the former police chief, hurling racist and homophobic slurs and bragging about killing 13 people as an officer, the lawsuit argues. In the recording, Dobbins relishes the idea that residents “fear” him.
Dobbins made national headlines after a Black officer secretly recorded 17 minutes of audio capturing his former boss repeatedly using words such as “faggot” and “N—–” while boasting about police brutality. Dobbins patrolled the streets of Lexington “with impunity” despite a well-known history of harassment, racist remarks and allegations that he jailed a man on bunk charges while working for a different Mississippi county in 2013 and nearly beat the man to death, accordingThe Mississippi Center for Investigative reporting, which first published the audio recording, was the one who secretly recorded Dobbins. Dobbins was secretly recorded by the officer reportedlyOn July 19, he resigned.
To the delight of Black residents, the local alderman voted 3 to 2 to fire Dobbins on 21 July. However, activists and residents say that the problem of racism in policing across the South and Lexington is far more than Dobbins. Jill Collen Jefferson, founder and director of JULIAN, the Mississippi-based civil rights group that filed the lawsuit, said it’s time to shine a light on the ongoing racist abuses in Lexington. The group, which represents several local Black plaintiffs in the lawsuit, is asking a federal judge to issue a temporary restraining orders on Lexington police officers to protect Black residents.
Local plaintiffs and civil rights groups also call on the Justice Department for an investigation, similar to what federal officials did in larger metropolitan areas with racist police abuse. practice that was temporary halted under former President Donald Trump before resuming under President Joe Biden. The lawsuit also includes allegations made by witnesses who worked for Lexington police and claimed that Dobbins beaten residents after handcuffing or dragging them from the back of patrol cars.
“There needs to be a formal, federal investigation, and not just of the one office or two offices or the police department, but of this entire town,” Jefferson said in an interview. “It’s really hard to explain [to outsiders], but every branch of government in Lexington is corrupt, every branch of government is controlled by white supremacy.”
Of Lexington’s roughly 1,800 residents, about 85 percent are Black, but former police chief Dobbins, the local prosecutor, the judge, the mayor and other top officials are all white and politically intertwined with one wealthy white family, according to Jefferson. Katherine Barrett Riley, the city’s attorney and a member of the family Jefferson described, did not respond to a request for comment.
Despite his checkered past, Dobbins was hired by city officials to “control” the local Black population and boost revenue with fines and legal fees, Jefferson said. Residents reported seeing hundreds of roadblocks in the small town set up to stop Black drivers. Two plaintiffs, both Black men, say they were targeted and arrested on bogus charges — including for possessing marijuana that was allegedly planted by police — after speaking out about police harassment at a community “know your rights” meeting earlier this year.
Former resident Tasha Walden said she fled Lexington and moved to Memphis, Tennessee to protect her family from Dobbins, who repeatedly wrote baseless tickets and made “repeated excuses” to arrest her son without a warrant. Walden’s son, who followed her and now lives in Memphis, is one of several plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which lays out a disturbing pattern of racial profiling, excessive force and sexual harassment by Lexington police.
“It’s a nightmare, it’s terrible, people are afraid to even walk down the street to go to the store to pay bills, because every time Black people come out, it’s always a problem,” Walden said over the phone on Thursday. “No matter if you ride or if you’re walking, it’s still a problem, especially the young Blacks, the younger generations, it’s a problem for them.”
Black residents filed at least two hundred complaints against Dobbins and other officers despite the threat of retaliation, Jefferson said, but officials failed to act until the recording of Dobbins’s racist tirade was released to the public. Two aldermen voted against Dobbins’ firing even though they were already in the room.
Civil rights groups have said for years that many rural jails, often in the South, operate like debtors’ prisons that routinely jail people living in low-income communities for failing to pay exorbitant fines and legal fees resulting from minor charges and traffic violations that are used to fill local coffers. Jefferson stated that Lexington’s methods of extortion and targeting are exactly how it keeps money flowing into the courthouse, police department, and county jails while operating in one the most impoverished counties in the country.
“It’s the ‘good old boy’ network, this is how this works,” Jefferson said. “What’s happening in Lexington is not only happening in Lexington, it’s also happening in other places across Mississippi and the South.”
Jefferson, who is Black, claimed that Dobbins once forced her out of the local courtroom, and threatened to arrest her if she entered. Jefferson said she called the office of Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, a Republican, but was told the local courtroom was outside of Fitch’s jurisdiction. When asked if racist policing in a Mississippi town would fall under Fitch’s statewide jurisdiction, a spokesperson said she would to review the lawsuit and added that Fitch’s office is unable to comment on ongoing investigations.
Fitch is presently focusing on Mississippi’s anti-abortion laws and it remains unclear if the attorney general will act on the alleged racism in Lexington.
Charles Henderson, the interim police chief of the town, was named as a defendant in a lawsuit. He has a bad reputation in town and replaced Dobbins. Among other alleged crimes and abuses — including threatening to kill a local resident for being outside at night and targeting him for arrest — more than a dozen women have reported that Henderson propositioned them for sex and proceeded to ticket or arrest them if they refused, according to the legal complaint.
Send an email to Associated Press, Henderson said he is working to move the Lexington police “forward” and cast doubt on the claims made by residents in the civil rights lawsuit, which he called a “defamation of character.”
Of course, a claim isn’t “defamation” if it’s true, and Jefferson says Henderson must also be held to account. She relayed a story about Henderson breaking down an elderly women’s door, blasting her with pepper spray and then using a fire hose to wash her down at the police station. Jefferson states that Henderson may believe his character is being defamed by the media and federal courts. Jefferson suggests that a federal investigation would be a good avenue to expose the truth.
“Let’s have the Department of Justice come in and look and see what Henderson has done; I would want to see what he has to say to the federal government, to show that he did not do these things,” Jefferson said. “We have a line of people that would go down the street with complaints against Henderson … if he wanted to do that, I would join fight.”