The Delaware State University women’s lacrosse team was on its way home after the final game of the season when its bus was pulled over in Georgia for what appeared to be driving in the wrong lane. But when deputies with the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office walked around the team bus last month, the players and coaches with the historically Black university were shocked that authorities had allegedly turned a traffic stop into a chance for deputies and a drug-sniffing dog to search their luggage and belongings.
“If there is something in there that is questionable, please tell me now because if we find it, guess what? We’re not going to be able to help you,” a deputy, who is White, said on the bus, according to a video taken by one of the athletes and posted to YouTube. “Marijuana is still illegal in the state of Georgia.”
The incident, which was first detailed in a story by sophomore lacrosse player Sydney Anderson in the school’s student newspaper, the Hornet, came about from what the HBCU’s president says was a case of racial profiling against a team made up of mostly Black players.
“At first, everyone was thinking it was going to be a quick traffic stop,” Pamella Jenkins, the team’s head coach, told The Washington Post. “Then we were quickly reminded that’s not what was going to happen.”
Now, the university and state lawmakers want answers. In a letter posted Monday, Delaware State University President Tony Allen said videos of the incident “clearly show law enforcement members attempting to intimidate our student-athletes into confessing to possession of drugs and/or drug paraphernalia.”
“To be clear, nothing illegal was discovered in this search, and all of our coaches and student-athletes comported themselves with dignity throughout a trying and humiliating process,” Allen said, noting that he has contacted Delaware Gov. John Carney (D) and state lawmakers about the drug search. “They, like me, are incensed. We have also 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.”
Liberty County Sheriff William Bowman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. Bowman, the first Black sheriff in the county’s history, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that race did not play a role in the search and maintained that his office would “follow the facts” in the investigation of the incident.
“If anything is proven wrong, the appropriate actions will be taken,” Bowman said. The deputies involved in the search have not been publicly identified.
The women’s lacrosse team from Dover, Del., concluded its season last month against Stetson University in Florida. Shortly after the team’s charter bus began the nearly 14-hour ride home, the driver, Tim Jones, was pulled over on Interstate 95 in Liberty County on April 20, also known as the annual marijuana holiday, Allen wrote. Jones, who is Black, was told by sheriff’s deputies that buses of that size were not allowed to drive in the left lane, Anderson recounted in the student newspaper.
As Jones was asked to step off the bus, coaches and players say authorities began a search of the vehicle indicating this was more than a routine traffic stop.
“We’re sitting on the bus waiting, and then one of my student-athletes says, ‘They’re pulling our luggage off the bus,’ ” Jenkins, 42, said to WHYY. “And so we all look over, and then we see a dog sniffing and going through our belongings, going through the bags as they’re coming off the bus.”
When two of the deputies got on the bus, Anderson said they informed the team that their bags and belongings would be checked for narcotics, including marijuana, ketamine and heroin. The sophomore accused police of “trying to get the ladies to admit to ownership of the 'imaginary’ drugs.”
“The officers tried to get them to admit to having drugs, while there was none in their possession,” Anderson wrote. “The officers conducted an unlawful search because there was no probable cause. [A] majority of the team members had never experienced an encounter with the police, making this a traumatic incident for them.”
Jenkins, who is in her third year as head coach, told The Post that the deputy explained to the team that the traffic stop was now a drug search and quickly mentioned marijuana, which infuriated the coach.
“We’re talking about exceptional scholar athletes, and for them to be subjected to that and seen in that light, I was irate,” she said. “I was also helpless because there was nothing in the moment I could do. I trusted my girls. When I heard the claims, I thought, ‘This is outlandish.’ ”
Anderson alleged that deputies “began tossing underwear and other feminine products, in an attempt to locate narcotics.” One of the deputies is heard saying in a video that he would be “thankful” if there were no drugs found in the search.
“It’ll make my job a lot easier,” he said.
The driver was not issued a citation during the stop, Jenkins said.
In the days since Anderson’s story about the incident published Wednesday, the university and Delaware lawmakers have called on more to be done in Georgia to investigate how the search happened. Allen wrote in his letter to the Delaware State community that the school does “not intend to let this or any other incident like it pass idly by.” Carney said in a Monday statement that the video of the incident was “upsetting, 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,” Carney said. “It’s especially hard when it impacts our own community.”
A trio of three Delaware Democrats in Congress — Sens. Thomas R. Carper and Christopher A. Coons and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester — echoed Carney in a joint statement about the “deeply disturbing” incident.
“No one should be made to feel unsafe or humiliated by law enforcement or any entity who has sworn to protect and serve them,” the statement read. “That’s especially true for students who have sought out HBCUs like Delaware State University with a long history of empowering communities of color that have far too often faced discrimination and other barriers to opportunity.”
The search is expected to come up again this weekend when former Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks at Delaware State’s commencement ceremonies, according to the Delaware State Journal.
While it remains unclear whether anything will come of it, Jenkins and the team are calling for the sheriff’s office to apologize for an incident they say was based on their race. But more than that, Jenkins hopes the story will help prevent another team from facing an allegedly racially motivated drug search like the one hers is still reeling from weeks later.
“I’m hoping what comes out of this is accountability,” she said. “I’m just hoping with the outrage from around the country, people realize that this is not okay and can be prevented. An apology would be nice, but we’re more focused on getting the word out so that this doesn’t happen anywhere in the country again.”