A federal judge has ordered a Mississippi county sheriff’s office to make sweeping changes after a civil rights lawsuit accused the county’s law enforcement agency of targeting black residents for years.
On Thursday, a federal judge in the Southern District of Mississippi issued a landmark settlement in the case of Brown v. Madison County (pdf). The settlement includes a consent decree aimed at preventing Madison County’s unconstitutional policing tactics, including pedestrian stops, “jump-outs” by plainclothes deputies in unmarked cars and roadblocks that disproportionately target black residents.
The settlement requires the Sheriff’s Department of Madison County (SDMC) to train deputies on best practices, evaluate their performance and collect and maintain data on checkpoints and pedestrian stops. Ezekiel Edwards, the Director of the ACLU’s Criminal Justice Reform Project told The Root that the settlement is unusual because consent decrees have normally been issued in urban areas and judges rarely use these reformative measures in rural areas.
“This kind of oversight is sometimes necessary, not only to make sure that a county has stopped doing the harm that brought us into court in the first place, but that they started to do the kinds of reform and ameliorative work that is necessary going forward,”
In May, a group of black citizens from Madison County, Miss. filed a federal civil rights suit against Madison County, the sheriff and six deputies, alleging that SDMC “implements a coordinated top-down program” that targets African Americans. The complaint notes that the county uses roadblocks, warrantless home invasions and excessive force to enforce “suspicionless searches and seizures” against the county’s black population.
As we previously reported:
Madison County sits smack dab in the middle of Mississippi, just north of the city of Jackson. The city of Madison is 85 percent white, while the county seat of Canton is 75 percent black. It is the richest county in the state, but most of that wealth is concentrated in the white areas.
According to the complaint filed by the ACLU, the Madison County Sheriff’s Department has routinely terrorized the majority-black citizens of Canton with illegal searches, warrantless arrests and brutal violence. While 38 percent of the county’s population is African American, blacks make up 78 percent of those arrested. USA Today calculated that in 2011-2012, Madison County’s per capita arrest rate for blacks was more than six times the rate for whites.
Much of what the lawsuit alleges is focused on the Madison County sheriff’s primary tool for targeting the black population: roadblocks. According to the suit, the county regularly sets up roadblocks outside housing projects and black businesses and in majority-black neighborhoods. The class action, civil rights suit cites the fact that between May and September, 81 percent of the people arrested at roadblocks were African American, although they make up just over a third of the people in the county.
ACLU attorneys uncovered a number of disturbing trends within the department including an email from a deputy labeled “White Pride.” One Madison County resident, Marvin McField, was arrested and placed in the back of a hot car with the windows rolled up before he was taken to another location and brutally beaten. McField was then sent to jail for 19 days without having any charges filed against him. When he was finally allowed to appear before a judge (without a lawyer), the judge simply told him he was free to go with time served.
Betty Tucker had invited a few guests over for a cookout in the garden of her Canton, Miss., home when two plainclothes sheriff’s deputies walked into her home without a warrant, checked her pockets and the pockets of her guests, searched her patio on their hands and knees, and then left. Six deputies came into Quinnetta Manning’s home without cause, handcuffed her boyfriend and threatened to put him in jail unless she made up a statement about her neighbor’s boyfriend.
“When the Madison County Sheriff’s Department forced their way into my house and choked my disabled husband, they stole a piece of our humanity,” said Manning. “I believe that this settlement agreement is not only a necessary step in reforming MCSD but a necessary step in returning humanity to the black residents of Madison County.”
“The Court’s order today affirms the simple but fundamental proposition, that in America police must treat everyone the same regardless of race,” said Joshua Tom, Executive Director of the ACLU of Mississippi.