Bodycam footage showing Liberty County deputies searching Delaware State lacrosse team members luggage during a traffic stop in south Georgia contradict a key claim the county sheriff has made about the stop.
While county officials contend the majority African-American team was not being racially profiled, several civil rights activists believe that is exactly what happened, prompting the Delaware Attorney General Kathleen Jennings to request a review of the incident by the U.S. Justice Department.
According to a bodycam video from the waistlines of Georgia deputies, released by Delaware Online on Wednesday, May 11, the officers did search the personal items of members of the Delaware State University Women’s Lacrosse team.
The footage directly contradicts a statement about the April 20 stop by Liberty County Sheriff William Bowman, uttered the day before on Tuesday, May 10.
He said flatly to the public, “No personal items on the bus or person(s) were searched.” However, the video shows them rummaging through bags and touching various personal items.
The officer attempted to also debunk the suspicion that the mostly team of Black women were stopped because of their race, saying, “before entering the motorcoach, deputies were not aware that this school was historically Black or aware of the race of the occupants due to the height of the vehicle and tint of the windows.”
The president of the Black college, Tony Allen, said he spoke to Bowman, a Black man, and saw the video.
In recalling his story with the sheriff, Allen told USA Today Bowman acknowledged “the historic concerns of African Americans in traffic stops with law enforcement. He even indicated an interest in reaching out to our lacrosse team for feedback to assist his department in improving its approach to people of color.”
Still, with the release of the footage, the president said, “It has become abundantly more clear that this incident must be investigated by objective, external authorities. We continue to push forward toward that objective.”
The Liberty County Sheriff’s deputies pulled over Tim Jones, the bus driver of the charter bus, because he was driving in the far left lane on Interstate 95, they told driver. The deputies claimed buses are generally restricted from using that lane, but they were applying a statute that applies to trucks and specifically makes an exception for buses.
The deputies boarded the bus and told the students that they would be conducting a search, going through their belongings, expressly looking for narcotics, with one deputy also mentioning they were looking for large amounts of money.
Bodycam shows the deputies not only going through the young women’s items, but they also brought in dogs. One deputy is depicted saying, “You are driving from Jacksonville to Delaware.”
The recording captures one student asking, “How did we go from being in the wrong lane to going through our bags?”
After asking about if there are drugs on the bus, another deputy says, “You guys are on a lacrosse team, correct? If there is something in there that is questionable, please tell me now. Because if we find it, guess what? We’re not going to be able to help you.”
On the video posted by one of the students, a deputy said, “I’m not looking for a little bit of marijuana, but I’m pretty sure your guys’ chaperones are probably going to be disappointed if, uh, we find it.”
“It went from two officers to six officers and they brought out their K-9,” Sydney Anderson, a member of the team, told NBC10. “They started smelling our bags. Going through everything. Our personal hygiene like underwear and everything in the bags and they did that for about twenty minutes.”
A student said a deputy told her a dog could be brought out to check for drugs, saying when pulling people over on the interstate they are “conducting … business.”
She said the deputy said, “This is what we do,” before discussing how one of the things they do on their job is to stop commercial vehicles because they have found narcotics, children being trafficked, and “large amounts of money” on the vehicles.
Patrick Campanelli, the father of one of the students and a lawyer, said this would have never happened if the students were from a white school like Notre Dame.
“Why [the deputy] would bring out a dog for a traffic citation goes to the fact that this is an officer who made a decision based on the facts in front of him,” Campanelli said. “And the only facts in front of him are he’s got a Historically Black college with many minorities on the team. I can guarantee he’s not walking that dog if it’s Georgia State or the University of Georgia or Notre Dame.”
In a statement, Allen said, “Our student-athletes, coaches, and the subcontracted bus driver are all safe. I have spoken with many of them, and in the course of investigating this incident in conjunction with our General Counsel and Athletic Director, I have also reached out to Delaware’s Governor, Congressional delegation, Attorney General, and Black Caucus. They, like me, are incensed.”
“It should not be lost on any of us how thin any day’s line is between customary and extraordinary, between humdrum and exceptional, between safe and victimized,” he continued. “This is true for us all but particularly so for communities of color and the institutions who serve them. The resultant feelings of disempowerment are always the aggressors’ object.”
Delaware Attorney General Kathleen Jennings said she was “deeply troubled” by the stop and search in correspondence to U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke. She further said it was “a troubling incident that is deserving of your attention” and expressed gratitude that the incident was on A.G.’s “office’s radar.”
The university filed a formal complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.