The Justice Department is now investigating the city of Lexington and the Lexington Police Department.
“No city, no town and no law enforcement agency is too large or too small to evade our enforcement of the constitutional rights every American enjoys,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “We are opening this investigation to determine whether the Lexington Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of discriminatory policing, excessive force or First Amendment violations.
“This investigation should send a clear message to small and mid-size police departments that they are not exempt from the obligation to provide fair, effective and non-discriminatory policing. We will leave no community behind, including underserved regions in the Deep South, in our quest to ensure lawful and constitutional policing in America.”
Todd W. Gee, whom the U.S. Senate recently confirmed as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, told reporters, “Police officers are trusted with the important duty to keep our communities safe. When police officers fail to respect constitutional rights, they violate that trust. Our office is committed to ensuring that everyone in Mississippi is treated fairly and lawfully by the police. Today’s announcement reflects that commitment. We will conduct a thorough and impartial investigation of the Lexington Police Department, and we will take decisive action to address any unlawful conduct.”
Civil rights attorney Jill Collen Jefferson, who was arrested by Lexington police nine days after meeting with Clarke, expressed her thanks to the assistant attorney general and the Civil Rights Division “for listening to this community. This is going to reinvigorate their belief in democracy and in justice, because honestly they have lost hope due to all the fear and terror they’ve had to endure.”
Jefferson, who heads the nonprofit, JULIAN, named after her mentor, Julian Bond, remains cautiously optimistic. “This is just a first step,” she said. “I’ll be ready to celebrate the findings when they’re released.
“The people of Lexington have put their lives and their livelihoods at risk,” she said. “People have lost their jobs and people have been beaten in order to get justice. JULIAN is incredibly proud of this community.”?
Lexington, an 85% majority Black town on the edge of the Mississippi Delta, came into national focus in 2022 when the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting broke the story of a recording of then-Lexington Police Chief Sam Dobbins, who is white and can be heard on a recording filled with racist and homophobic slurs, bragging about killing 13 people in the line of duty.
In one case, he said, “I shot that n—– 119 times, OK?” In another part of the 17-minute recording, Dobbins can be heard saying, “I don’t give a f— if you have to kill a motherf—er in cold blood.”
A day later, the Lexington City Council fired Dobbins, but Jefferson and other residents said the harassment of Black residents has continued under the new chief, who is Black.
JULIAN, who shared the recording of Dobbins with MCIR, filed a lawsuit that said more than 200 Black residents had complained about unconstitutional treatment by the Lexington Police Department, but a federal judge rejected a request for a restraining order against the department.
National scrutiny continued when MCIR exposed that Dobbins had a long and checkered past in law enforcement, which included the 2012 killing of Ralph Winston, a Black man who was battling mental illness.
On the recording, Dobbins described the shooting: “I chased this motherf—er across the field. I got him. He was DRT [dead right there] in the field. The vehicle was shot 319 times, but he was hit 119 times by me.”
An investigation by the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation found 96 bullet holes and ricochet marks were recorded on Winston’s car and a “blood pool” covering the driver door, seat, floor and steering wheel.
Clarke said the investigation will seek to determine whether there have been violations of federal law and the Constitution.
She said the probe will focus on the police department’s use of force and its stops, searches and arrests as well as whether police are arresting those whose speech and conduct is protected by the First Amendment.
Gee said those with information can contact the Justice Department by email at Community.LexingtonMS@usdoj.gov, by phone at (833) 610-1232 or through the website, www.civilrights.justice.gov. He said other civil rights violations can be reported to the U.S. Attorney’s Office at USAMSS.firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 973-2825.
Justice Department officials plan to hold a public community meeting today, Nov. 8, at 5 p.m. at St. Paul Church of God in Christ Fellowship Hall, 17214 Highway 17 South, in Lexington, Mississippi.
Gee said everyone in Mississippi and throughout the nation “want to feel safe in our homes and in public. But we want that safety to be obtained fairly and legally, not through illegal force or abuse of power.
“Make no mistake: good police work is done legally and fairly every day in many places in America and in Mississippi. The investigation we announce today will ensure that the residents of Lexington, Mississippi are receiving the same from their police force.”
UPDATE 11/8/23: The story has been updated with an additional comment.