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 lawsuit filed in federal court this week claims white police in the rural, majority-Black town of Lexington, Mississippi, targeted Black residents and subjected them to false arrests, brutality, excessive fines and 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, according to the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, which first revealed the audio recording. The officer who secretly recorded Dobbins reportedly resigned on July 19.
Local aldermen voted 3-2 to fire Dobbins on July 20 to applause from Black residents. However, those residents and activists say the problem of racist policing in Lexington and across the South is much bigger 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. Representing several local Black plaintiffs, the group is asking a federal judge for a temporary restraining order on Lexington police to protect Black residents.
Civil rights groups and local plaintiffs are also calling on the Justice Department to investigate, as federal officials have done in larger cities with patterns of racist police abuse, a practice that was temporary halted under former President Donald Trump before resuming under President Joe Biden. Allegations included in the lawsuit also come from witnesses working for the Lexington police, who reported that Dobbins and other officers brutally beat residents after handcuffing them or dragging them out of 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 hundreds of roadblocks set up in the tiny town to target and 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 200 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. Even then, two aldermen voted against firing Dobbins.
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 said such targeting and extortion is exactly how Lexington keeps money flowing into the courthouse and police department while operating in one of the poorest counties in the nation.
“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, said Dobbins once blocked her from entering the local courtroom and threatened to arrest the civil rights attorney if she went inside. 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.
However, Fitch is currently focused on defending the anti-abortion laws in Mississippi, and as of Friday it remained unclear whether the attorney general will take any action on the alleged racist abuse in Lexington.
The town replaced Dobbins with an interim police chief, Charles Henderson, who is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit and has a nasty reputation in town. 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.
In an email to the 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. However, if Henderson believes his character is being defamed in the media and federal court, then a federal investigation would be a good way to expose the truth, Jefferson says.
“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.”