Firing the Chief of Police is not enough. Lexington residents are asking the Board of Aldermen to pass a list of ordinances to improve police interactions and minimize discriminatory enforcement in the small town.
The primary role of public officials is to serve our communities and respond to our needs. Voters elect mayors, aldermen, and alderwomen to provide for and take care of our towns. We expect our mayors and alder people to appoint police chiefs and other public servants to ensure our safety and security.
In the small town of Lexington, Mississippi, one of the poorest counties in the state, the police department's crucial promise to protect and serve is broken. Over 80% of the town's 1,500 population is Black, and through over 200 official and unofficial complaints about the Lexington Police Department, we have learned that officers have a long history of targeting and mistreating Black citizens.
The ACLU of Mississippi has joined a coalition of other civil rights groups, activists, and community members to demand change. Largely, we have engaged with JULIAN, a civil rights legal advocacy non-profit organization that has led a multi-prong effort to organize, educate and advocate for the residents of Lexington while investigating LPD's and the City's conduct.
The main character found to have been acting against Black Lexington residents is former Police Chief Sam Dobbins. Since Dobbin's hiring in July 2021, residents, community leaders, elected officials, and others have repeatedly complained to public officials in Lexington of mistreatment – often racially motivated – by Dobbins and the Lexington Police Department. The accusations against LPD include brutality, falsifying charges, racially discriminatory roadblocks, and excessive and untraceable cash bond practices.
The coalition of organizations and individuals has uncovered a disturbing trend of police misconduct being ignored by Lexington public officials. The city attorney, Board of Aldermen, and mayor were all aware of the unconstitutional accusations, yet no one took action to reprimand or investigate the department. It was not until a roughly seventeen-minute recording of Chief Dobbins bragging about killing people in the line of duty was released that the Board of Aldermen voted to fire him. In the repulsive recording, Dobbins says he did not care if his officers "killed a m*ther f**ker in cold blood." He used racial and homophobic slurs when discussing Black and LGBTQ community members and boasted about personally shooting a man 119 times.
Even after numerous complaints from citizens, and former LPD officers stating that Dobbins often speaks and behaves this way, two aldermen voted to keep Dobbins as police chief. Ultimately, Dobbins was terminated in a 3/2 vote.
Former Police Chief Dobbins' second in command is now the Lexington Police Chief. The replacement, Chief Charles Henderson, has also been the focus of numerous complaints regarding police brutality in Lexington. Understandably, the community remains concerned that the City is not addressing the root issues with policing practices.
Police misconduct, excessive force, and targeting are particularly disturbing in a community like Lexington, which is majority Black and economically disadvantaged. The type of violence and corruption neighbors have outlined in complaints is in line with a system of American policing that has harassed, brutalized, and murdered Black people since its inception, and it can no longer be swept aside.
JULIAN Mississippi Organizing Director Francine Jefferson is leading the community in advocacy efforts. "The current ordinances must change to address the community's concerns, improve quality of life, restore hope, and embrace unity – not just for the moment but for future generations. This City has standards of governance that allow it to hire unfit police officers. There is no adequate process for addressing citizen complaints, which is a gross and dangerous lack of accountability. In 2022, we can do better. Ordinances for the people – by the people," Jefferson said.
The coalition of organizations and individuals continues to fight for change in Lexington. JULIAN and the National Police Accountability Project (NPAP) filed a lawsuit alleging wide-ranging civil rights violations by LPD. At the direction of and on behalf of the people of Lexington, the ACLU of Mississippi has helped draft and propose new ordinances and policing policies to the Lexington Board of Aldermen. The proposed ordinances and policies are designed to do the following:
- Ensure the standardization of checkpoints that (1) comply with local, state and federal law; (2) impose minimal intrusion or motorist inconvenience; and (3) assure the safety of the general public as well as law enforcement;
- Emphasize the Lexington Police Department’s commitment to unbiased, equitable treatment of all persons;
- Ensure that any person who has a complaint against LPD can raise it;
- Allow an expanded timeline from 48 hours to 6 months for the repairs of inoperable vehicles located on private property;
- Eliminate arrests for violating the ordinance prohibiting the use of fireworks;
- Prohibit discrimination as a result of a person's real or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability, marital status, familial status, or veteran status including in employment, public accommodations and housing;
- Repeal the current ordinance prohibiting profanity, as it violates the First Amendment.
The ACLU of Mississippi has also snet letters to the United States Department of Justice and Mississippi Federal Bureau of Investigation, outlining the accusations against LPD.
The work is not over, and with our partners, we will continue to fight so that people in Lexington have a safe, just, and fair place to live.