Update: This story has been updated to include statements from both the Delaware attorney general and the governor.
Sheriff's deputies used a drug-sniffing dog to search a bus full of Black college lacrosse players after a minor traffic stop in Georgia—seemingly in hope of trying to get the players to admit to drug possession.
The incident, caught on video via police body cameras, came after the bus was stopped on Interstate 95 for a minor traffic violation—driving a large vehicle in the wrong lane—last month. The bus was transporting the women from a game in Jacksonville, Florida, back to Delaware State University.
Bodycam footage of the incident shows a Liberty county cop in his patrol car holding the license of the bus driver, saying over the radio that he suspects someone on the bus may have something illegal.
“There’s a bunch of dang school girls on the bus, there’s probably some weed, maybe,” says the officer, who has not been named. “He [the driver] seems a little talkative. He’s been driving for 20 years going from Jacksonville to Delaware.”
Moments later, in an exchange also captured on video both by police bodycam and by a student on their cellphone, one of the officers enters the bus telling the students to remain calm as the cops begin their search.
“If there is anything in y’alls luggage, we’re probably going to find it, OK. I’m not looking for a little bit of marijuana, but I’m pretty sure you guys’ chaperones are probably going to be disappointed in you if we find any," the deputy says.
“So if there is something in there that’s questionable, please tell me now. Because if we find it, guess what, we’re not going to be able to help you. You are in the state of Georgia; marijuana is still illegal,” he continues.
“If there’s nothing, then I’m thankful to make my job a lot easier. We’re going to get this done and we’ll have you guys on your way.”
At least four officers are then seen to be searching the bags and suitcases aboard while the students sit quietly and cooperate. The K9 seen in the bodycam video also joined in on the search, according to students on the bus and the school president. At one point, an officer tells a student that a wrapped gift—a present from the student’s aunt—will need to be opened to make sure nothing illegal is inside.
In the end, the police inform the bus driver and the students that nothing was found and lets them go.
Tony Allen, the president of Delaware State University president, was “incensed” and said the search was discrimination.
“To be clear, nothing illegal was discovered in this search, and all of our coaches and student-athletes comported themselves with dignity throughout a trying and humiliating process,” Allen said in a statement.
“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 said. “That 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.”
Allen said he’s already discussed the possibility of legal action.
Delaware Gov. John Carney, a Democrat, called the police search “upsetting and disappointing” and said his office will assist the school in its investigation.
Delaware’s Attorney General Kathy Jennings took things a step further, asking for a federal civil rights review of the police stop.
One of the athletes aboard the bus said in an article for the Hornet, Delaware State University’s student paper, that she, several of the other students, the head coach, and even the bus driver thought their race was a factor in the way they were treated.
“The officers conducted an unlawful search because there was no probable cause,” sophomore Sydney Anderson wrote. “Majority of the team members had never experienced an encounter with the police, making this a traumatic incident for them.”
“When I saw the police come on the bus and then accuse us of having narcotics, I was reminded that living as Black women in America, you are scrutinized when just trying to live,” Lacrosse coach Pamella Jenkins told the Hornet.
More than 70 percent of the student body at Delaware State is Black.
Liberty County Sherriff Willliam Bowman said during a press conference Tuesday the bus was one of several large vehicles stopped that morning, including another bus where contraband was found. He said that the cops involved in the stop couldn’t have known that the bus was full of students from a mostly Black school.
“As part of our training, deputies are instructed to speak to the individuals with respect and to explain the next step,” Bowman said. “We realize that even a traffic stop can be alarming for citizens, especially African Americans.”
“Although I do not believe any racial profiling took place based on the information I currently have, I welcome feedback from our community on ways that our law enforcement practices can be improved while still maintaining the law," Bowman continued.
The sheriff said the department is currently reviewing the traffic stop to ensure no department policies were violated by the officers.
Despite being touted as a harmless tool for ensuring public safety, police traffic stops have disproportionately affected people of color in the U.S. for decades. In many tragic cases these routine stops have turned deadly, including the police killing of Philando Castile. Most recently, last month in the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, 26-year-old Patrick Lyoya was shot in the head by a cop who pulled him over for expired car tags.
Some cities including St. Paul, Fayetteville, and Philadelphia have curtailed law enforcement’s ability to pull people over for minor traffic violations, in hopes of reducing unnecessary, possibly deadly encounters.
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