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Sheriff Denies Racial Profiling After Deputies Search HBCU Team’s Bus for Drugs

A routine traffic stop was allegedly turned into a hunt for illegal substances after deputies saw the bus’s occupants.

Student athletes from Delaware State University (DSU), a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), were subjected to an unwarranted search of their possessions by the Georgia sheriff’s department following a traffic stop of their bus last month.

Students, coaches and administrators alike at DSU are calling the incident “traumatizing” for those who were involved, in what many believe was a racially motivated action on the part of the law enforcement agency.

On April 20, the DSU women’s lacrosse team was traveling by bus north on I-95 through Liberty County, Georgia, following a match in Florida earlier in the day. According to an account by Sydney Anderson, a sophomore member of the team who recollected the experience in the university’s student-run paper, the bus driver, who is Black, was pulled over by Liberty County Sheriff’s Office deputies for improperly driving in the left northbound lane.

State law generally forbids buses to use the left lane but makes allowances for them to do so when they’re passing other vehicles. Minor traffic violations like this have historically been enforced on Black individuals more often than on white persons.

Once the vehicle was pulled over, the deputies called in for backup, and told the students on the bus that they would be searching their possessions “for any possible narcotics, such as marijuana, heroin, methane [sic], and ketamine,” Anderson wrote, though they had expressed no probable cause to do so. Deputies also tried to coerce the students into confessing they had drugs in their possession, threatening them with prison if they didn’t before they found the “imaginary” drugs.

“If there is anything in y’alls luggage, we’re probably gonna find it,” one of the deputies said, adding that it would probably “disappoint” their chaperones if something was found.

“If there is something in there that is questionable, please tell me now because, guess what, we’re not gonna be able to help,” the same deputy added.

Deputies told the bus driver to open the luggage storage area under the bus. K-9 dog units were brought in to sniff students’ luggage, and deputies “began tossing underwear and other feminine products, in an attempt to locate narcotics,” Anderson said.

“The fact of the matter is the underlying racism the Delaware Women’s lacrosse team endured. The officers tried to get them to admit to having drugs, while there was none in their possession,” Anderson added in her article recounting the situation. “The officers conducted an unlawful search because there was no probable cause.”

After the article by Anderson was published last week, Liberty County Sheriff William Bowman defended his deputies’ actions, saying that, after his review of the video, he did “not believe any racial profiling took place.” Bowman based that assessment on a flimsy rationale, saying that deputies “were not aware that this school was historically Black or aware of the race or the occupants” before they entered the bus.

That argument discounts the fact that the search of the bus happened after deputies decided to take action beyond a simple traffic citation and occurred after the deputies had seen the occupants of the vehicle.

In spite of clear visual evidence — including photographs of deputies handling students’ belongings and video of them telling the students they’d be performing a search — Bowman also tried to claim on Tuesday that “no personal items on the bus or person(s) were searched.”

DSU president Tony Allen said that he was “incensed” over the incident, noting that video taken by students indeed showed that deputies were “attempting to intimidate our student-athletes into confessing to possession of drugs and/or drug paraphernalia.”

“We have also reached out to Georgia Law Enforcement and are exploring options for recourse – legal and otherwise – available to our student-athletes, our coaches, and the university,” Allen said.

DSU women’s lacrosse coach Pamella Jenkins also said the ordeal was “very traumatizing” for the students involved.

“The infuriating thing was the assumption of guilt on their (deputies’) behalf,” she added.