A federal judge has denied a temporary restraining order aimed to prevent a Mississippi police department from violating Black residents’ constitutional rights and acting violently towards them.
U.S. District Court Judge Tom Lee rejected a restraining order and injunctive relief against the Lexington Police Department, which has been the subject of a lawsuit filed last month by civil rights organization JULIAN and the National Police Accountability Project.
Lee wrote the depiction of Lexington police’s tactics and harm against Black citizens are disturbing, but the plaintiff’s memorandum is made primarily of claims and assertions not backed by evidence.
“The list of their unsupported allegations is unfortunately long but nevertheless worth detailing, because by separating out and discarding them from consideration, the picture becomes somewhat clearer, and it is more easily seen that injunctive relief is unwarranted,” he wrote.
The lawsuit was filed in the Southern District of Mississippi by five Black Lexington residents against Sam Dobbins, the former police chief; Charles Henderson, the interim police chief; the Lexington Police Department and the City of Lexington.
Plaintiffs allege the Lexington police engaged in racial and retaliatory abuse and harassment against them and Black residents, including unlawful searches and seizures, false arrests, and excessive force, which violate the First, Fourth and Fourteenth amendments. The plaintiffs said Henderson has maintained the custom of how Lexington police treats Black residents started by Dobbins, and that is the reason why injunctive relief was needed, according to court records.
Lexington has a population of about 1,800 and is 86% Black.
In his order, Lee lists and breaks down 23 claims he said lack evidence, including that Dobbins continues to patrol in Lexington after his firing, multiple incidents of excessive force during arrests or interactions with residents and that Black residents have been afraid to speak with attorneys or activists due to fear of retaliation.
Dobbins, who is white, was appointed police chief in July 2021. Plaintiffs alleged he led a department practice of violating the constitutional rights of Black citizens.
In July of this year, an audio recording surfaced of Dobbins using a racial slur and homophobic remarks. He also talked about killing people while a member of law enforcement and shooting one person multiple times.
As a result, the Board of Aldermen fired Dobbins by a 3-2 vote. Henderson was appointed interim chief.
The judge wrote there are also unsupported claims made about Lexington’s municipal government: how the city has endorsed the police’s ongoing misconduct and how Board of Aldermen members harassed and retaliated against Black residents.
Lee also dismissed the temporary restraining order because the plaintiffs failed to show a likelihood that they could prove there were civil rights violations.
In the case of unlawful arrests, he reviewed several of the arrests the plaintiffs experienced and found that Lexington police had probable cause to make them.
“Even if the court assumes for present purposes that there was no probable cause for the arrests, and also assumes that the arrests were attended by an unreasonable use of force, the court still finds that plaintiffs have not demonstrated a likelihood of proving an official policy of either arresting people without probable cause or of excessive force,” Lee wrote.
Toward the end of the ruling, Lee notes that most of the plaintiffs’ complaints happened under Dobbins’ leadership. In court testimony, Holmes County Sheriff Willie March said Lexington’s policing has improved and calls he has received from residents about the police have decreased since Dobbins’ firing.
Before the judge’s ruling, defendants responded to the complaint and denied most of the allegations. Dobbins invoked qualified immunity several times in relation to actions he took while serving on the police force.
Dobbins also asked that the court dismiss the complaint, deny plaintiffs relief and award him attorney fees, costs and expenses “associated with the defense of the frivolous” action, according to court records.