The Delaware State University women’s lacrosse team was traveling by bus through Georgia last month when it was pulled over by Liberty County deputies for illegally traveling in the left lane.
What happened next is about to be the subject of a formal complaint with the US Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. While the bus was stopped, a narcotics-sniffing dog made what is known as an “open-air alert”, signaling to authorities that narcotics may be present in the area.
Deputies then boarded the bus and searched a number of the athletes’ bags and an unopened package, finding nothing illegal. The deputies ultimatley did not issue a citation for the traffic stop either.
Delaware State, a historically Black institution located in Dover, is arguing that its students were racially profiled and that the search was unconstitutional. Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings, in a letter last week, also called on the Justice Department and the state of Georgia to investigate the incident.
“By all accounts these young women represented their school and our state with class — and they were rewarded with a questionable-at-best search through their belongings in an effort to find contraband that did not exist,” Ms Jennings wrote.
Delaware governor John Carney was similarly angered. He toldThe Hill that the incident was “ââupsetting, concerning, and disappointing”.
“Moments like these should be relegated to part of our country’s complicated history, but they continue to occur with sad regularity in communities across our country,” Mr Carney said. “It’s especially hard when it impacts our own community.”
In a statement released last week, Liberty County Sheriff William Bowman wrote that the stop is being formally reviewed and that he welcomes feedback from passengers on the bus as to “what communication approaches can be considered that we simply may not be aware of”. He denied that his deputies were guilty of racial profiling.
“At the time, or even in the weeks following, we were not aware that this stop was received as racial profiling,” he said. “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.”
Mr Bowman has also said that his deputies were not aware that Delaware State is a historically Black institution, nor could they clearly see the passengers on the bus before pulling it over.
But Mr Bowman has already had to backtrack once since the stop and search on April 20. Mr Bowman initally claimed that “no personal items on the bus or person(s) were searched,” before body camera footage showed that the deputies had in fact search a number of personal items on the bus.
In additon to the body camera footage, Sydney Anderson, a member of the team, posted a video of part of the incident to YouTube.
“If there is something in there that is questionable, please tell me now,” a deputy is heard saying in the video. “Because if we find it, guess what? We’re not going to be able to help you.”