Members of a Georgia Sheriff’s Department are accused of racially profiling Delaware State University’s lacrosse team last month. Now the president of the historically black university is demanding answers and considering possible legal action.
On April 20, the DSU women’s lacrosse team was on a bus headed home from a game in Florida. While traveling on I-95 in Liberty County, Georgia, the bus was pulled over by Liberty County Sheriff’s Department officers.
In a letter, DSU President Tony Allen wrote that the officers stopped the team “under the pretext of a minor traffic violation.” The officers boarded the bus and claimed the driver committed a traffic violation since he was driving in the left lane, according to a member of the lacrosse team.
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“The belongings of the student-athletes, including suitcases in the luggage racks beneath the bus, were searched by police and drug-sniffing dogs,” Allen wrote.
“They’re pulling our luggage out and they have dogs going through, sniffing through our belongings,” Pamella Jenkins, head coach of the DSU Women’s Lacrosse team, told NBC10.
Allen wrote that the officers tried to intimidate the team into confessing to possessing drugs or drug paraphernalia.
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“Their response was on this stretch of highway that a lot of buses like this are smuggling people and narcotics and that they have to be vigilant about checking,” Jenkins said.
The officers searched through the bus but no drugs were found.
“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 wrote.
Sydney Anderson, a member of the team, wrote about the incident in DSU’s student newspaper.
“It went from two officers to six officers and they brought out their K-9,” Anderson 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.”
Most members of DSU’s Lacrosse team are African American. Jenkins and Anderson believe the incident was racially motivated. Allen, meanwhile, reached out to Delaware’s Governor, Congressional delegation, Attorney General, and Black Caucus.
“They, like me, are incensed,” Allen wrote. “We have also reached out to Georgia Law Enforcement and are exploring options for recourse—legal and otherwise—available to our student-athletes, our coaches, and the University.”
Jenkins told NBC10 she wanted an apology from Liberty County Sheriff William Bowman, who is African American.
“That would be great. Yes. Yes. An apology,” she said. “And just some acknowledgement that this isn’t something our student athletes have to look forward to. This is not okay that that happened to us.”
“As a veteran, a former Georgia State Trooper and a sheriff of this department, I do not exercise racial profiling, allow racial profiling or encourage racial profiling,” he said. “From what I have gathered, I believe that the stop was legal, but I also understand my duty to help the public understand law enforcement while seeking ways to improve services.”
Bowman said the bus was one of several commercial vehicles that were stopped on April 20 after the driver committed a lane violation. Georgia state law requires a bus or motorcoach to operate in the two most right hand lanes except when the bus or motorcoach is preparing for a left turn or moving to or from a High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV or carpool) lane, according to Bowman.
Bowman also said “contraband” was located on a different bus that was stopped that day.
“Due to the nature of the detail, a K-9 was part of the stop and an alert was given by the K-9,” Bowman said. “Before entering the motorcoach, the 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 the tinted windows.”
Bowman also said the search of the Delaware State University bus was part of their standard protocol.
“This is the same protocol that is expected to be used no matter the race, gender, age or destination of the passenger,” he said.
Bowman also denied that any personal items were searched on the bus.
“No personal items on the bus or person were searched,” he said. “As part of our training, deputies are instructed to speak to the individuals with respect and to explain the next step.”
Bowman confirmed that no drugs were found during the search. He also said the driver was issued a warning.
“We realize that [under] this current environment, even a traffic stop can be alarming to citizens, especially African Americans,” Bowman said. “It’s why we make an effort to have a diverse department and hire people who believe in community policing and respect for all individuals.”
In the days and weeks following the incident, Bowman said his department was unaware of the controversy or racial profiling allegations.
“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 said. “More than anything, we want feedback from the passengers of the Delaware University lacrosse team.”
Bowman also said the incident is under formal review in order to “ensure there were no policy violations and applicable laws were followed.”
In a statement on Wednesday, Allen said Bowman spoke with him about reaching out to the DSU lacrosse team for feedback to help assist the department in "improving its approach to people of color."
Allen said he looked forward to hearing from Bowman about how "he would like to proceed in that regard." Allen also said Bowman's public statement on the body camera footage of the incident raised more questions than answers.
“Sheriff Bowman insists that personal items were not searched; the video clearly shows officers searching toiletries and clothes, and even cutting open a family graduation gift," Allen wrote. "Sheriff Bowman said the officers were unaware of the nature of the passengers on the bus; the audio clearly demonstrates that the officers were aware both that this was a busload of 'schoolgirls,' and that they did not expect to find anything other than marijuana, which the officer who entered the bus said they were not looking for.”
Allen said he would push forward toward getting "objective, external authorities," to investigate the incident.