Feds Demand Policy Overhaul of Georgia Sheriff’s Office After Deputies Deployed K-9 to Sweep for ‘Some Weed’ In HBCU Lacrosse Players’ Bus During Minor Traffic Stop; No Drugs Were Found

The Department of Justice has reached an agreement with a sheriff’s office in Georgia to review its bias-free policing policies and procedures after deputies conducted a traffic stop on a bus full of Black HBCU lacrosse players last year under the pretense of a minor traffic violation.

In April 2022, deputies with the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office in south Georgia stopped a bus carrying female student-athletes from Delaware State University, one of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities, located in Dover. They were on their way back to school after a game at the Jacksonville University campus in Florida.

Two deputies from the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office in south Georgia searched a bus filled with Delaware State University women’s lacrosse players in April 2022. (Photos: Courtesy of Pamella Jenkins and India Rosiere)

Deputies initially said the bus was pulled over because the driver violated a state traffic law when he drove in one of the left lanes of the highway. State law states that buses and motor coaches must be driven in the two most right-hand lanes unless the vehicle needs to make a left turn or is moving to and from an HOV lane.

Related: ‘Reminiscent of the 1950s’: HBCU President Says South Carolina Law Enforcement Targeted a Group of Students from Her School During a Trip to a Conference

Reports show deputies began sweeping the bus for drugs with a K-9 officer. Someone on the bus recorded a video of one deputy telling the passengers they’d be conducting a drug search and requested that they tell him if they had any drugs or drug paraphernalia. They searched the young women’s luggage and belongings as well as the trunk of the bus.

No illegal substances or items were found.

County officials said the team was not being racially profiled and Liberty County Sheriff William Bowman initially told the public that “no personal items on the bus or person(s) were searched.”

Video taken by witnesses directly contradicted the statement as well as what could be seen on deputy body-camera footage. That footage shows one deputy running the license plate number for the bus. Another deputy is heard asking, “Positive on the truck?” He then says, “There’s a bunch of dang schoolgirls on the truck. Probably some weed.”

Delaware State University president Tony Allen filed a formal complaint with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and called the search “constitutionally dubious.”

The Department of Justice worked with the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office to come to a resolution. According to the DOJ, the sheriff’s office will “review its bias-free policing policies, make necessary updates to its policies on traffic enforcement and searches, and develop and implement data collection procedures, among other provisions.”

“Fairness and racial equity are fundamental principles for effective law enforcement, especially for those agencies that receive federal funding,” said assistant attorney general Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “The students and staff at Delaware State University deserve policing that is racially equitable and bias-free. The agreement that we have secured with the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office will help ensure that its policing practices are free from racial bias and discrimination going forward. We will continue working to ensure that federally funded law enforcement agencies comply with our federal civil rights laws.”

Delaware state officials backed the school when news of the stop spread last year.

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 president of Shaw University, a historically Black college in Raleigh, North Carolina accused law enforcement officers of racial profiling in a similar stop that happened in October 2022.

According to university president Paulette Dillard, deputies and officers in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, conducted a traffic stop on a bus filled with 18 of Shaw’s students traveling to Atlanta for a conference.

Dillard reported that officers stopped the bus because it was swerving and issued the driver a warning ticket for improper lane use, then used drug-sniffing dogs to search the passengers’ belongings. Nothing illegal was discovered.

Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Lt. Kevin Bobo said their office would like to get more information from the school like where the stop took place, the tag number of the bus, and the agencies involved so officials can properly investigate.

Dillard called the scene “reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s — armed police, interrogating innocent Black students, conducting searches without probable cause, and blood-thirsty dogs.” He also said the deputies’ actions were “unfair and unjust.”

Dillard said she requested the school’s general counsel to consider options for legal recourse.

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