‘Living in fear’: Small-town Mississippi residents are skeptical of DOJ’s police investigation

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Francine Jefferson (left) and Cardell Wright (right) sit in the Lexington Public Library on Dec. 8, 2023.

Francine Jefferson (left) and Cardell Wright (right) sit in the Lexington Public Library on Dec. 8, 2023. The two organizers and Holmes County residents are working to raise awareness around policing issues in Lexington, Mississippi.

Michael McEwen, MPB News

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on March 8 to reflect additional reporting and to provide more complete information about ongoing lawsuits.


Under a scrum of low clouds in December, a police car turns onto the town square in Lexington, Mississippi, making a slow circuit and then vanishing.

Few townsfolk linger in front of a beauty supply store, an eye doctor, a newspaper’s office. Green, red and peppermint-striped balloons hang listlessly on a storefront.

Against the backdrop of nearly empty sidewalks, the patrols serve as an unsettling reminder of the troubles some county residents say they’ve had with Lexington’s police department.

“Everybody was kind of living in fear of the police,” said retired educator and activist Sherri Reeves.

A Lexington Police Department officer’s vehicle sits outside the town’s police station and courthouse on July 18, 2023.
A Lexington Police Department officer’s vehicle sits outside the town’s police station and courthouse on July 18, 2023. (Michael McEwen/MPB News)

Those allegations include excessive force, roadblocks targeting Black drivers, retaliation and illegal stops and searches, according to public remarks by a U.S. Department of Justice official. The claims prompted the DOJ to announce a “pattern or practice” investigation into the city of Lexington and its police department.

Made public Nov. 8, the investigation will examine if Lexington police violated residents’ civil or legal rights. Similar reviews have happened in MemphisLouisville, at Louisiana’s State Police agency and elsewhere. They can lead to reforms and oversight, such as a consent decree — an improvement plan overseen by a court. The New Orleans Police Department has operated under such an agreement for more than 10 years.

But as the DOJ’s spotlight pans over Lexington, in-depth interviews with county residents reveal concerns about the investigation’s outcome and show apprehension that little will change.

“It was a ray of sunshine for the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to open a pattern and practice investigation,” said Cardell Wright, a local organizer who is president of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. “But we need to get to the finish line.”

In recent years, Wright has joined other organizers and legal advocates to hold community meetings, get people out of jail, file formal complaints, speak to the media and lobby local officials to call attention to alleged misconduct.

Wright and Francine Jefferson, another organizer, say they have fielded calls from people who were jailed shortly after organizing meetings, who were arrested for using profanity, or who said that police Tased them during a stop, sending them to the hospital.

“I would have a long day and I would get in the bed and by the time I lay my head on the pillow, there are phone calls coming in,” said Wright.

Attorneys for Lexington officials declined interview requests, citing litigation. Its police chief didn’t return messages left at his office. A judge’s opinion in open civil rights cases — written months before the DOJ’s investigation was made public — said some arrests and uses of force were justified, and that bodycam footage contradicts some accounts.

Since the investigation was announced, Jefferson — who was born in Lexington — is trying to show an optimism she doesn’t always feel.

The situation reminds her of the “two Mississippis.”

“There’s one for people of color and poor, that’s kind of together. And then there’s one for the status quo,” she said. “For some reason, it just seems that we’re not going to get the justice. That’s how it feels to me, deep down inside.”

In February, the DOJ sent a letter to Lexington officials warning them about jailing people for unpaid fines without checking if they can afford to pay them. That came after reviews of bodycam footage, case records and witness interviews.

‘Living in fear’

Lexington residents concerned with policing in their town protest outside of the courthouse and police station on July 18, 2023.
Lexington residents concerned with policing in their town protest outside of the courthouse and police station on July 18, 2023. The protest was held before a trial date for dozens of residents who were arrested on various traffic violations or disturbing the peace. The protestors claim their charges stem from false arrests. (Michael McEwen/MPB News)

Lexington, a town of about 1,600 people, is criss-crossed by winding roads that are speckled with mobile homes. Just an hour north of Mississippi’s capital of Jackson, it feels remote, tucked amid shorn fields and stands of tall trees.

It seems like an unlikely place for federal monitors to investigate, due to the town’s size and relative obscurity. According to a text of prepared remarks from Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s civil rights division, it is one of the smallest agencies the department has looked into.

In another way, however, it’s typical. Clarke cited Bureau of Justice Statistics data that show half of the nation’s police departments, like Lexington, have 10 or fewer officers.

“Small and mid-sized police departments cannot and must not be allowed to violate people’s civil rights with impunity,” Clarke said in the remarks.

The Justice Department’s announcement came on the heels of a series of incidents in Lexington that made headlines, including in the international press.

In 2022, the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting obtained a recording of Lexington’s then-police chief, Sam Dobbins, allegedly making racist comments and bragging about shooting peopleThe town’s board of aldermen forced him out. MCIR later revealed his complicated history across several agencies.

Less than a year later, a civil rights lawyer was arrested in Lexington while filming a traffic stopand was later found guilty at a bench trial over associated misdemeanor charges before the judge reversed those convictionsThe lawyer’s nonprofit, JULIAN, is involved in civil rights lawsuits against the Lexington Police Department and local officials.

One of those suits’ plaintiffs, Peter Reeves, reflected on recent history and the DOJ’s response in an interview with Sherri Reeves, who is his mother. The two share decades of experience living in Lexington, and run a youth football nonprofit together.

Both said things have changed since Peter was a kid, when police activities were not memorable. They weren’t sure when things began to shift — perhaps when a former chief of police stepped down.

Sherri Reeves is eager for Lexington to serve as an example for other communities in Mississippi where officials want to abuse power. She gave the example of nearby Rankin County, where deputies and a police officer recently pled guilty to criminal charges for the assault of two Black men.

“I believe in law and order, OK? I believe in policing, but policing the right way — without harassment,” she said.

‘They think that this is normal’

Peter Reeves (left) and his mother, Sherri Reeves (right), recall the events of Peter’s 2022 arrest from their living room in Lexington, Mississippi on Dec. 8, 2023.
Peter Reeves (left) and his mother, Sherri Reeves (right), recall the events of Peter’s 2022 arrest from their living room in Lexington, Mississippi on Dec. 8, 2023. Peter says he was driving home when he arrived at a Lexington Police roadblock and was arrested shortly after. (Michael McEwen/MPB News)

Lawsuits and other documents provide a window into the allegations against LPD, suggesting patterns that may have led to the Justice Department’s probe.

The initial complaint in the lawsuit Peter Reeves is a party to includes several alleged instances of police use of force. In one case, officers allegedly “broke down a woman’s door without a warrant, maced her, arrested her absent probable cause for a crime without Mirandizing her, and hosed her down from head to toe with a fire hose, before leaving her outside,” according to court documents.

“She was in her 60s. It was the middle of winter, and she had on nothing but a nightgown,” the complaint alleged. A legal filing from lawyers for the city of Lexington and its police chief denies this.

Another plaintiff’s story included an account of being arrested and jailed for alleged non-payment of fines he’d thought were fully paid, as well as allegations of further threats and harassment.

“As he was sitting inside his parked vehicle in front of his sister’s home in Lexington, officers approached the vehicle, reached in and yanked his shirt collar, pulling him through the window,” the complaint reads.

A legal response denies this account, also. A judge’s April 2023 opinion disputes several details from these incidents, writing that an officer’s use of force “was not excessive” and dismissing the man’s claims.

Gulf States Newsroom obtained formal complaints filed with the police department via a public records request, in which people wrote of a former Lexington police officer”trying to run me off the road,” or of pulling over a teenager in a traffic stop alleged to be racially motivated.

The Mississippi ACLU has also filed two lawsuits against Lexington police and leadership within the past year.

Joshua Tom, the group’s legal director, said those suits in part describe allegations of police asking residents for payments that don’t match up with the traditional bond or fine structure after arrests, suggesting to one plaintiff that cash can “make all these charges go away,” Tom said.

The Mississippi ACLU corresponded with the DOJ before the announcement of its investigation. It’s hard to say for certain why misconduct allegations like this have surfaced at law-enforcement agencies around Mississippi, Tom said.

“It could be that this is just how they’ve operated for many years and they’ve never been held to account. And they think that this is normal,” Tom said.

‘Some cops be cops for the wrong reasons’

Robert Lee Hooker Jr., a former Lexington police officer, talks about the factors that lead up to the Department of Justice launching an investigation into the Mississippi town's police department on Dec. 9, 2023, in Lexington, Mississippi.
Robert Lee Hooker Jr., a former Lexington police officer, talks about the factors that lead up to the Department of Justice launching an investigation into the Mississippi town’s police department on Dec. 9, 2023, in Lexington, Mississippi. Hooker is now a sheriff for Holmes County, Mississippi. (Rashah McChesney/Gulf States Newsroom)

DOJ officials have said the agency’s staff will shadow Lexington officers in the field, solicit feedback from community members and review bodycam footage and records. A few people who spoke to the Gulf States Newsroom in December mentioned having other interviews set with DOJ staff.

The agency will release a report if it determines there’s a pattern of civil rights violations and will work to refine practices with the police. Officials will also announce publicly if their investigation doesn’t turn up any issues.

An anticipated timeline for those findings isn’t clear. A DOJ spokesperson wrote in an email that they couldn’t share updated information because the investigation is ongoing.

Complicating matters, county residents almost uniformly emphasized that they didn’t want to see Lexington abolish or limit its police force. Many pointed to a perceived rise in big-city crimes in recent years, describing an armed robbery at a popular diner, or shootings in public places.

One law enforcement professional, who spent time working at the Lexington Police Department, attributed crime to the poverty and limited opportunity in the county, which extends to officers. He described making less than $11 an hour on Lexington’s force.

“Desperate people do desperate things,” leading to more crime, said Robert Lee Hooker Jr.

Hooker was the whistleblowing source of the recording of Lexington’s former police chief that led to the official’s ousting. Now a county sheriff’s deputy, Hooker agreed that the police department needs an overhaul.

Nestled at the end of a country lane, his snug living room was decorated with police mementos. Worn ID cards were fanned on a coffee table, and a flak jacket slumped casually in a corner.

Even now, when he no longer works for the Lexington force, Hooker says people will anxiously call him, asking permission to drive through town. They might have an expired plate or lapsed insurance and are afraid of being thrown in jail.

“Some cops be cops for the wrong reasons,” Hooker said.

The inside of Robert Lee Hooker Jr.’s home is a testament to a decades-long career in law enforcement.
The inside of Robert Lee Hooker Jr.’s home is a testament to a decades-long career in law enforcement. Hooker, a former Lexington police officer, is now a sheriff for Holmes County, Mississippi. (Rashah McChesney/Gulf States Newsroom)

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public BroadcastingWBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR

 

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