USA TODAY International Edition

Ga. sheriff denies any bus search wrongdoing

- Isabel Hughes and Kevin Tresolini

Days after Delaware State University’s student newspaper published a video and news article about an April traffic stop by Georgia deputies that many have since decried as racial profiling, the county sheriff denied any wrongdoing by his deputies.

In a public address Tuesday afternoon in Hinesville – a small, southeaste­rn Georgia city south of Savannah – Liberty County Sheriff William Bowman defended the stop, which occurred on April 20. He said after speaking with deputies and reviewing video and other aspects of the incident, he does “not believe any racial profiling took place.”

“Before entering the motorcoach, the deputies were not aware that this school was historical­ly Black or aware of the race or the occupants due to the height of the vehicle and tint of the windows,” Bowman said. “As a veteran, a former Georgia state trooper and the sheriff for this department, I do not exercise racial profiling, allow racial profiling or encourage racial profiling.”

But many who were on the bus during the stop felt otherwise, saying there was no reason for deputies to search their belongings after stopping the bus for a minor traffic infraction. It was pulled over for traveling in the left lane, which certain large vehicles are not allowed to do in Georgia. The driver was not cited.

Bowman said Tuesday that “no personal items on the bus or person( s) were searched” – negating the accounts of multiple people on the bus at the time.

He also declined to take questions from reporters after reading an approximat­ely six- minute statement.

The April incident unfolded relatively quickly, after the bus carrying Delaware State University’s women’s lacrosse team was stopped on I- 95 north. Bus driver Tim Jones was told he was improperly traveling in the left lane.

After Jones pulled over, deputies used a K- 9 to circle the outside of the bus. They claimed the dog alerted them to narcotics, which they said gave them reason to search the bus.

Video taken by DSU player Saniya Craft shows a deputy who boarded the bus saying, “If there is anything in y’all’s luggage, we’re probably gonna find it, OK? I’m not looking for a little bit of marijuana, but I’m pretty sure you guys’ chaperones are probably gonna be disappoint­ed in you if

we find any.”

By that time, Liberty County Sheriff ’ s Office deputies had begun removing players’ bags from the vehicle’s cargo bay after asking Jones to open it. Deputies knew those on board were on a lacrosse team.

“If there is something in there that’s questionab­le,” the deputy speaking on the bus said, “please tell me now because if we find it, guess what? We’re not gonna be able to help you.”

Outcry was swift following the video’s publicatio­n, with Delaware elected officials, university personnel, students and community members saying they are angered by the stop. DSU President Tony Allen said in a Monday letter that he is “incensed.”

Pamella Jenkins, who coaches the team, said the incident was “very traumatizi­ng” and credited the lacrosse players for staying “composed.”

She said when team members saw their luggage being removed before a deputy had begun his explanatio­n, they were stunned. “The infuriatin­g thing was the assumption of guilt on their ( deputies’) behalf,” Jenkins said. “That was what made me so upset because I trust my girls.

“One of my student- athletes asked them, ‘ How did we go from a routine traffic stop to narcotics- sniffing dogs going through our belongings?’ The police officer said that on this stretch of highway there are a lot of buses that are smuggling people and narcotics and they have to be diligent.”

On Tuesday, Bowman acknowledg­ed some of the concerns, saying in “this current environmen­t, even a traffic stop can be alarming to citizens, especially African Americans.”

He said that is “why we make an effort to have a diverse department and hire people who believe in community policing and respect for all individual­s.”

However, all deputies on and outside the bus were white, photos and video from the incident show. Most, but not all, of the players and coaches on the bus were Black.

Delaware State University did not provide comment about the sheriff ’ s comments but said previously it has “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.”

While activists locally and in Georgia echoed the frustratio­ns of Delaware officials and students, they also said they’re not surprised by the incident – an all too common occurrence for people of color, especially Black citizens, they said.

Gerald Griggs, president of Georgia’s state NAACP chapter and a prominent Atlanta- area attorney and activist, said he wants “some transparen­cy” from the sheriff ’ s office, including an explanatio­n for why the K- 9 was brought out.

Bowman did not offer any details Tuesday as to why the police dog was needed.

“Simply stopping a bus filled with African Americans and subjecting them to that ( search) raises grave civil rights concerns,” Griggs said. “We’ve had many of these incidents in which passengers and vehicles have been stopped under the pretext of some type of traffic violation and then subjected to prolonged searches on the side of the road.”

The stop and search lasted 30 to 45 minutes, Jenkins estimated.

The incident did not come to light publicly until a story appeared in DSU’s student publicatio­n The Hornet Newspaper and its website thehorneto­ late last week. It was written by Sydney Anderson, a sophomore lacrosse player who was on the bus.

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