WASHINGTON – The Justice Department announced Monday an agreement with the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office to resolve a race discrimination civil rights complaint under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In response to the complaint, LCSO worked with the Justice Department to reach a resolution agreement that will modernize its policing operations and further its ongoing efforts to prevent and address discriminatory law enforcement practices.
In May 2022, the Justice Department received a complaint from Delaware State University (DSU), a historically Black university, alleging that Liberty County Sheriff’s deputies discriminated against its student athletes, athletic coach, and driver when it conducted a racially discriminatory traffic stop of a bus chartered by DSU.
Following the traffic stop, the university alleged that the subsequent questioning and search of the personal belongings of the primarily Black passengers, including through the use of a drug-sniffing dog, constituted unlawful race discrimination in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act (Title VI). Title VI prohibits recipients of federal financial assistance from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin. The Liberty County Sheriff’s Office is a recipient of federal funding from the Justice Department.
Liberty County Sheriff Will Bowman said in a letter addressing the memorandum of agreement that as the county’s first Black sheriff, he takes racial profiling “very seriously and very personally.”
“I am confident that race in no way motivated or influenced the law enforcement actions of my office on April 20, 2022, and that these actions otherwise were entirely legal,” Sheriff Bowman wrote in his response to the MOA.
Bowman also said he intends to reaffirm his commitment “to fair and impartial law enforcement practices whereby all persons are treated with dignity and respect.”
Bowman said in his opinion, the central issue, and principal tension, of the incident “is the appropriateness of coordinating drug interdiction efforts with routine traffic stops, especially those that are canine-supported.”
Bowman noted he understood the indignation and unease a law-abiding person, regardless of their race, can experience from being subjected to investigatory activities, such as having the outside of a vehicle sniffed by drug-detecting dogs, that are unrelated to the original traffic violation.
“This is especially true for Black Americans,” he wrote, who have historically been disproportionately impacted by these practices, and in many cases, unlawfully discriminated against and mistreated by law enforcement because of their race,” he wrote.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said fairness and racial equity are fundamental principles for effective law enforcement, especially for those agencies that receive federal funding.
“The students and staff at Delaware State University deserve policing that is racially equitable and bias-free,” she said. ‘The agreement that we have secured with the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office will help ensure that its policing practices are free from racial bias and discrimination going forward. We will continue working to ensure that federally-funded law enforcement agencies comply with our federal civil rights laws.”
“Law enforcement is most effective when it is supported by public confidence,” said U.S. Attorney Jill E. Steinberg for the Southern District of Georgia. “The agreement announced today is a step toward ensuring that policing occurs in an evenhanded manner.”
In a statement Tuesday, the university said it stands “in solidarity with our players.”
“We disagree with the outcome of LCSO's internal investigation, which concluded that its officers acted consistent with the law,” the statement continued. “We hope that USDOJ will closely monitor and evaluate LCSO's compliance with the terms of the agreement and, if necessary, reopen its investigation if LCSO fails to meet its obligations.”
Internal investigation clears deputies
An internal investigation conducted by the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office, released late Wednesday, cleared the deputies involved of any wrongdoing and categorically stated the deputies are “exonerated.”
Addressing complaints that the stop and search of the Delaware State University women’s lacrosse team was based on racial profiling, The bus initially was pulled over for driving in the far left lane, known colloquially as the “fast lane,” of Interstate 95.
Deputies said they did not know who was on the bus, which had been chartered and did not bear any markings that it carried the team, nor the race of its occupants until they stopped it and met with the driver.
When a LCSO canine alerted to a potential scent of drugs, during an open air check of the bus exterior, deputies searched the bags in the immediate area of where the dog was alerted but did not find anything.
According to the report’s findings, based on probable cause provided by the canine’s alert, the deputy “was authorized to extend the scope and duration of the initial traffic stop to conduct a search of the bus (including baggage thereon) and perform related investigatory activities.”
While a much more comprehensive search was legally permissible, according to the internal investigation, the deputy “exhibited good judgment and professionalism by limiting the scope of the search. Additionally, the deputy made no inquiries aimed at investigating other crimes during the traffic stop and was otherwise reasonably diligent in the performance of all mission-related duties. During the encounter, he kept both the driver and passengers of the bus informed of the reasons for the traffic stop and other investigatory activities and was otherwise responsive to their questions.
He also reassured them that the open-air canine sniff and baggage search were part of legitimate interstate interdiction efforts and were not intended to “single anyone out,” the report continued.
The bus driver also was not given a written citation but instead given a verbal warning.
The investigation also said “the traffic stop was initiated based solely on an observed traffic violation and could not have been motivated by race,” as the deputy was unaware of the occupants’ race or their affiliation with an HBCU (Historically Black College or University) prior to making contact.
“Based on a review of the evidence discussed above, no violation of policy or law was observed,” the internal investigation concluded. “Rather, available evidence indicates that the law enforcement action under investigation was consistent with routine interstate interdiction practices and was in no way motivated or influenced by race.”
The four deputies involved with the incident have remained on the staff. One, Sgt. Dennis Abbgy, resigned May 11, 2023. Sgt. Abbgy’s resignation was said to be unrelated to the incident.
Sheriff’s office to review its procedures
Under the agreement, LCSO will review its bias-free policing policies, make necessary updates to its policies on traffic enforcement and searches, and develop and implement data collection procedures, among other provisions.
Drug interdiction efforts, such as the one carried against the Delaware State women’s lacrosse team, have been supported and carried out by various law enforcement agencies, Bowman pointed out, and it is common for drug-sniffing dogs to be employed when those efforts involve a large vehicle, such as a truck or a bus. Such drug interdiction efforts, Bowman wrote, also have been backed by the courts.
“However, I also understand that these efforts must be accomplished in a way that the public can appreciate and support,” Bowman added. “If not, these otherwise legal and well-intentioned practices can erode trust between law enforcement and the communities that they serve. This must be avoided at all costs.”
The sheriff also said he wants residents, particularly those in minority communities, to “know that the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office will do everything it can to be responsive, transparent and accountable to the public, who we serve.”
Kathleen Jennings, attorney general for the state of Delaware, sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice on May 11, 2022, asking for a formal investigation.