Mississippi Sheriff’s Department Accused Of Racial Profiling Agrees To Reforms That Settle Black Residents’ Lawsuit
The Madison County Sheriff’s Department was sued in 2017 for allegedly subjecting Black motorists and pedestrians to unconstitutional stops and searches.
On Thursday, the sheriff’s department in Madison County, Mississippi, entered into an agreement aimed at ending racially biased policing tactics that prompted a civil rights lawsuit against the majority-white county. Eight named plaintiffs alleged that they were unconstitutionally stopped at pedestrian and vehicle checkpoints that were more prevalent in and around Black communities. During discovery, many other people submitted sworn testimony about similar experiences.
The agreement, which settles the 2017 suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi and the law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, establishes a consent decree that will change how and when deputies interact with pedestrians and motorists at checkpoints. The consent decree prohibits deputies from using race and other demographics as a basis for a stop “unless such characteristics are part of a specific subject description,” and requires the sheriff’s department to collect and maintain racial data for every checkpoint and pedestrian stop.
The department’s policy manuals will be rewritten to reflect the changes, and all deputies will undergo training that includes a focus on “cultural diversity,” “police-citizen interaction” and “implicit bias,” according to court documents that spell out the agreement. Within 30 days, Madison County must also establish a five-member community advisory board that will accept residents’ complaints about the sheriff’s department and make recommendations to the sheriff regarding consent decree compliance.
The ACLU said an agreement of this kind is rare, particularly in the Deep South, where biased policing practices and other misconduct that might spur reform in big cities often float under the radar. The Madison County consent decree has no involvement from the U.S. Department of Justice which, under the Trump administration, limited the agency’s involvement in such agreements.
“It’s significant that we have a robust settlement that is going to be overseen by a federal court and enforceable in federal court, challenging the practices that had really victimized the Black community in Madison County,” Ezekiel Edwards, director of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, told The Appeal. “We hope that this not only improves the lives of the residents … but also is both a model and a maybe a warning bell to other police departments throughout the South.”
In a statement issued Thursday evening, Sheriff Randy Tucker said the lawsuit had taken a toll on his department. “Numerous depositions were taken of department employees, thousands of reports and other documents were provided and man hours lost that could have and should have been utilized protecting the citizens of Madison County,” he wrote. After successfully fending off a class action lawsuit, which a judge denied in January, his office decided to settle, Tucker wrote. “The Madison County Sheriff’s Department will continue to serve all citizens of Madison County through leadership and accountability as we always have.”
As a part of the agreement, neither Tucker nor any sheriff’s department employee have admitted to engaging in “unconstitutional, illegal, or otherwise improper conduct,” the agreement states.
Judge Carlton Reeves signed off on the consent decree Thursday afternoon in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi in Jackson. The settlement includes monetary payments to be made to the plaintiffs, but the ACLU declined to disclose how much each plaintiff would be paid, citing a confidentiality agreement.
The consent decree will remain in effect for four years and will be monitored by a federal judge, as well as by the community oversight board and plaintiffs’ attorneys, according to the agreement.
The Madison County Sheriff’s Department serves an area of about 105,000 people—approximately 57 percent white and 38 percent Black—and is located in Canton, 26 miles north of Jackson, the state capital. The county has the highest per capita income in Mississippi.
According to the lawsuit, data collected from the sheriff’s department shows that between 2012 and 2017, Black residents were subject to 77 percent of all arrests and 72 percent of all citations issued by Madison County deputies. The department focused its enforcement “where Black people live, work, gather and pray,” plaintiffs alleged in the lawsuit, and its deputies “terrorize the community like a gang would.”
Unconstitutional and biased policing was not limited to pedestrian and vehicle stops, the suit states. Lawrence Blackmon, one of the plaintiffs, said deputies arrived at his grandmother’s home in Canton in 2015 and banged loudly on the door, demanding to be let in. When Blackmon asked to see a warrant, the deputies allegedly threatened to break down the door, so he relented and let them in. Officers with their guns drawn then tackled Blackmon, he said, handcuffed him and searched the entire residence. When the search was done, Blackmon was released from the handcuffs and was not charged with a crime.
“We are hopeful that compliance with the agreement will assure a culture change within the Madison County Sheriff’s Department, and that impact will be felt within the community within a short amount of time,” said Blackmon, who is also a local attorney, in a phone interview Thursday.
Though the settlement agreement proposes sweeping changes for deputies who patrol Madison County, it does not address residents’ concerns about the Madison County Detention Center, a nearly 400-bed facility housing both pretrial and sentenced prisoners in Canton. In 2018, three detainees died while in custody and soon after being released, including Harvey Hill, a 36-year-old handyman who was arrested and charged with trespassing at the home of a former employer. On May 6, 2018, sheriff’s deputies working in the jail allegedly singled out Hill, restrained, pummeled, and pepper-sprayed him, before tossing him in a cell, where he was found dead the next morning.
“We believe that the ACLU settlement is certainly a step in the right direction, but it is clear that the correctional officers also need to be retrained and evaluated,” Carlos Moore, a Mississippi-based attorney with the Cochran Firm, told The Appeal on Thursday. On behalf of Hill’s family, Moore filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Tucker and jail guards on Feb. 19.
Edwards said he believes changes required under the consent decree will prompt the sheriff’s department to “use their awesome power of arrest and detention more judiciously and more fairly.”
“The hope would be that that would result in fewer people being detained,” he told The Appeal, “and certainly fewer people being detained simply because of their race or the part of Madison County in which they live.”