The Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation into the police department and city of Lexington, Mississippi, following multiple allegations of misconduct.
Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke announced the probe Wednesday, saying it will focus on the Lexington Police Department “to determine whether they engaged in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution and federal law.”
“Based on an extensive review of information that is publicly available, we conclude there is significant justification to open this investigation now,” Clarke said during a press conference.
Last year, Sam Dobbins was fired as Lexington’s police chief after he was accused of making racist and homophobic remarks in a secret recording, as well as boasting about killing 13 people in the line of duty.
In June, members of the Lexington community alleged that they had endured years of police abuse.
Resident Yolanda Wallace told Jackson-based station WLBT that she was unlawfully stopped by Lexington police and groped.
“He took his hands and put it down between my legs, and he pulled me out of the car,” Wallace said, referring to one officer. “They had the sheriff’s department man, he was standing there looking, and I’m pretty sure it was on a camera up there so they can see it.”
That same month, a civil rights attorney in the state said she was arrested after filming a traffic stop of a Black motorist in the town square.
“My plan was to film footage of police falsely arresting Black people, and I just happened to get caught up in it,” the attorney, Jill Jefferson, told CNN at the time.
Lexington has a population of under 1,600 people, with fewer than 10 officers on the police force, Clarke said during Wednesday’s press conference. About 80% of the population in Lexington is Black and the poverty rate is approaching 30%, she added.
Clarke said the DOJ investigation will focus on allegations that police have arrested people without justification, used force against those who didn’t pose a threat to officers, used illegal roadblocks to target Black drivers, and retaliated against people recording police activity.
“The police department also appears to have violated First Amendment rights by arresting people merely for using profanity,” Clarke said.
As part of the probe, the DOJ will review internal police department documents, bodycam footage and police reports. Officials will also meet with community members and observe police officers during their shifts.
“Police misconduct in smaller communities may not alway garner national attention,” Clarke said. “But rest assured, the Justice Department is watching.”