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Lexington, Miss., residents talk about why they're scared of local law enforcement

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In cities like Memphis, Minneapolis and Louisville, the Department of Justice has investigated allegations of police misconduct. Last fall, the agency opened a probe in a smaller place - Lexington, Miss. The Gulf States Newsroom's Kat Stromquist spoke to Lexington residents. They're hoping for change after years of pushing back on the town's police.

KAT STROMQUIST, BYLINE: In November, Justice Department officials traveled to Mississippi to share big news about a small town. They're investigating Lexington and its police department, which has fewer than 10 officers.

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KRISTEN CLARKE: Small- and midsized police departments cannot and must not be allowed to violate people's civil rights with impunity.

STROMQUIST: That's assistant attorney general for civil rights Kristen Clarke with DOJ. She's referring to allegations of unlawful stops, retaliation, racist roadblocks and excessive force by police. Lexington is a majority-Black town about an hour north of Jackson. It has a town square, mobile homes and tall trees that line winding roads. Some people said those roads didn't feel safe because of the police. Here's community organizers Francine Jefferson and Cardell Wright.

FRANCINE JEFFERSON: If you get pulled over, chances are you're going get locked up, or you're going to get jacked up at the same time. And you get charges that they cannot fight.

CARDELL WRIGHT: Like, the only difference between what they've done and what Derek Chauvin did with George Floyd is that George Floyd died and these people didn't. But those same tactics are being employed.

STROMQUIST: Lawsuits have been filed. We reached out, and an attorney for Lexington officials said they don't comment on litigation. Its police chief didn't return messages. A judge's opinion in open civil rights cases said some arrests and uses of force were justified and that bodycam footage contradicts some accounts. The organizer, Wright, leads the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. He says people have been telling him about police misconduct for years.

WRIGHT: I will have a long day, and I will get into bed. By the time I lay my head on the pillow, there are phone calls coming.

STROMQUIST: He and other organizers held meetings and news conferences, went to court and worked to get people out of jail. Now, residents are anxious for change, but it's not clear when they might know more.

WRIGHT: I mean, it was a ray of sunshine for the Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney's office to...

JEFFERSON: It's huge.

WRIGHT: ...Open a pattern and practice investigation, but we need to get to the finish line.

STROMQUIST: Reaching that finish line matters to Francine Jefferson, the other organizer, but the region's struggles make her apprehensive.

JEFFERSON: We've got two Mississippis. There's one for people of color and poor - that's kind of together. And then there's one for the status quo - those who have. The have and have-nots - that's where we are.

STROMQUIST: There's crime, too. In Lexington, people said they're worried about robberies and shootings. This isn't a place where people say they want to ban or defund the police. Take retired educator and activist Sherri Reeves.

SHERRI REEVES: I believe in law and order, OK? I believe in policing, but policing the right way, without harassment.

STROMQUIST: Reeves' son, Peter, is a plaintiff in a civil rights lawsuit against the department and local officials. She connects Lexington's problems to officer misconduct all over the state. She hopes the Justice Department's investigation can be an example that leads to change.

REEVES: I don't want my child, my grandchild, growing up scared of the police.

STROMQUIST: One former Lexington officer and whistleblower agrees things could be a lot different. Robert Lee Hooker Jr. recorded Lexington's former police chief, his boss, allegedly using racist slurs and bragging about shooting people. With deep roots in the county, Hooker knew he had to speak up.

ROBERT LEE HOOKER JR: Knowing that my mom and my daddy picked cotton, I couldn't let it go.

STROMQUIST: Hooker is now a county sheriff's deputy. I saw a flak jacket and old police badges in his living room. He says the area is complicated. People still ask his permission to drive through town, afraid of being thrown in jail by police. While his former boss is gone, he says problems persist.

HOOKER: You know, sometimes we cops for the wrong reasons. They cops for the wrong reason, baby girl. They did.

STROMQUIST: In February, the DOJ sent a letter to Lexington officials, warning them about jailing people for unpaid fines without checking if they can afford to pay. That came after reviews of bodycam footage, case records and witness interviews. For organizer Francine Jefferson, staying optimistic has been hard.

JEFFERSON: For some reason, it just seems that we're not going to get the justice. That's how it feels to me deep down inside.

STROMQUIST: The waiting is a challenge. These DOJ investigations can take a year to wrap up - or longer.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

That was Kat Stromquist. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kat Stromquist