HBCU lacrosse team accuses police of racial profiling in bus search

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The Delaware State University women’s lacrosse team was returning home from the final game of the season when their bus was stopped in Georgia for what appeared to be driving in the wrong lane. But when Liberty County Sheriff’s Office deputies marched around the team bus last month, players and coaches at the historically black university were shocked that authorities had allegedly turned a traffic stop a chance for deputies and a drug-sniffing dog to search their luggage and personal effects.

“If there’s anything in there that’s questionable, please tell me now because if we find it, guess what? We won’t be able to help you,” said a deputy, who is white, on the bus, according to a video taken by one of the athletes and posted on YouTube: “Marijuana is still illegal in the state of Georgia.”

The incident, which was first detailed in an article by sophomore lacrosse player Sydney Anderson in the school’s student newspaper, the Hornet, stems from what the HBCU president says was a case of racial profiling against a team made up mostly of black players.

“At first everyone thought it was going to be a quick traffic stop,” Pamella Jenkins, the team’s head coach, told The Washington Post. “Then we were quickly reminded that this was not what was going to happen.”

The Delaware State University women’s lacrosse team accused police of racial profiling during a traffic stop in Liberty County, Georgia on April 20. (Video: Saniya Craft via Storyful)

Now, university and state lawmakers want answers. In a letter released Monday, Delaware State University President Tony Allen said videos of the incident “clearly show members of law enforcement attempting to intimidate our student-athletes to that they admit to being in possession of drugs and/or drug paraphernalia”.

“To be clear, nothing illegal was uncovered in this research, and all of our coaches and student-athletes conducted themselves with dignity throughout a trying and humiliating process,” Allen said, noting that he had contacted Delaware Gov. John Carney (D) and state lawmakers about the drug search. “They, like me, are furious. We have also contacted Georgia law enforcement and are exploring the options for recourse – legal and otherwise – available to our student-athletes, coaches and the university.

Liberty County Sheriff William Bowman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. Bowman, the first black sheriff in the county’s history, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that race played no role in the search and maintained that his office would “follow the facts” in the investigation into the incident.

“If something is found to be wrong, appropriate action will be taken,” Bowman said. The deputies involved in the search have not been publicly identified.

The Dover, Del. women’s lacrosse team concluded its season last month against Stetson University in Florida. Shortly after the team’s charter bus began the nearly 14-hour journey home, the driver, Tim Jones, was arrested on Interstate 95 in Liberty County on April 20, also known as the annual marijuana holiday, Allen wrote. Jones, who is black, was told by sheriff’s deputies that buses that size weren’t allowed in the left lane, Anderson told the student newspaper.

As Jones was asked to get off the bus, coaches and players said authorities began searching the vehicle, indicating it was more than a routine traffic stop.

“We’re sitting on the bus waiting, and then one of my student-athletes says, ‘They’re taking our luggage off the bus,’” Jenkins, 42, told WHYY. “And so we all look over and then we see a dog sniffing around and going through our things, searching the bags as they get off the bus.”

When two of the deputies boarded the bus, Anderson said they informed the team that their bags and belongings would be checked for narcotics, including marijuana, ketamine and heroin. The sophomore accused the police of “trying to get the ladies to admit ownership of the ‘imaginary’ drugs.”

“Officers tried to get them to admit they had drugs, when there were none in their possession,” Anderson wrote. “Officers conducted an unlawful search as there was no probable cause. [A] the majority of the team members had never encountered the police, making this a traumatic incident for them.

Jenkins, who is in his third year as head coach, told the Post that the assistant explained to the team that the traffic stop was now a drug search and quickly mentioned marijuana, which had exasperated the coach.

“We’re talking about outstanding college athletes, and having them subjected to that and seen in that light, I was angry,” she said. “I was also helpless because there was nothing I could do at the time. I trusted my daughters. When I heard the claims I thought, ‘This is weird. .”

Anderson alleged that the deputies “began throwing away underwear and other feminine products, in an effort to locate narcotics.” One of the deputies is heard saying in a video that he would be ‘grateful’ if no drugs were found during the search.

“It’s going to make my job a lot easier,” he said.

The driver did not receive a citation during the stop, Jenkins said.

In the days following Anderson’s story of the incident published Wednesday, the university and Delaware lawmakers demanded that more be done in Georgia to investigate how the search unfolded. Allen wrote in his letter to the Delaware State community that the school “does not intend to let this or any similar incident pass.” Carney said in a statement on Monday that video of the incident was “shattering, concerning and disappointing.”

“Moments like these should be relegated to a part of our country’s complicated history, but they continue to happen with sad regularity in communities across our country,” Carney said. “It’s especially difficult when it impacts our own community.”

A trio of three Delaware Democrats in Congress — the senses. Thomas R. Carper and Christopher A. Coons and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester – echoed Carney in a joint statement about the “deeply disturbing” incident.

“No one should feel endangered or humiliated by law enforcement or any entity that has sworn to protect and serve them,” the statement read. “This is especially true for students who have sought out HBCUs like Delaware State University with a long history of empowering communities of color who have too often faced discrimination and other barriers to opportunity.”

The search is expected to resume this weekend when former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks at the Delaware State Opening Ceremonies, according to the Delaware State Journal.

While it’s unclear if anything will come of it, Jenkins and the team ask the sheriff’s office to apologize for an incident they believe was based on their race. But more than that, Jenkins hopes the story will help prevent another team from dealing with an allegedly racially motivated drug search like the one she’s still reeling from weeks later.

“Hopefully what comes out of this is accountability,” she said. “I just hope that with the outrage across the country, people will realize that this is not acceptable and that it can be avoided. An apology would be nice, but we are more focused on getting the message out. so that this does not happen again anywhere in the country.

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