She took on a small Mississippi town’s police. Then they arrested her. (2024)

LEXINGTON, Miss. — Handcuffed in the cramped lobby of the Lexington Police Department, standing eye-to-eye with the chief, Jill Collen Jefferson was given a choice. She had been arrested while filming a nighttime traffic stop in this county seat of roughly 1,500 people and four traffic signals. Pay a $35 processing fee, the chief said, and we’ll release you.

Days before, Jefferson had met with Justice Department investigators from Washington. She had hoped to turn their attention to this small-town police force, whose new, Black police chief, Charles Henderson, was accused of continuing the racist and discriminatory practices of the White commander he replaced.

Jefferson, 37, a Harvard-educated lawyer and former Obama administration speechwriter, declined Henderson’s offer to let her go if she paid the fee. Instead she stepped into the back of a police cruiser and traced the journey made by dozens of her clients — some beaten, some accused of infractions as minor as driving without insurance — past the town’s Confederate monument, to the county jail.

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“I’m going to tell the world what you’re doing here,” she vowed to Henderson that day in June 2023.

Almost five months later, the head of the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division stood in the banquet hall of a Lexington church to make an improbable announcement: The agency would aim its mighty investigative resources at Lexington’s police force, which at the time had dwindled to about 10 officers and would soon shrink further.

Rural America is guaranteed the same rights as our largest cities, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke told those in attendance, some of whom were plaintiffs in the lawsuits Jefferson had filed alleging false arrests, excessive force and more.

Similar Justice Department probes have focused on much larger places, such as Minneapolis, Baltimore and Seattle. The agency has also investigated conditions in jails and prisons in Mississippi, a state where multiple local law enforcement agencies have been found to use violence as a tool of policing, and where the Justice Department recently won lengthy sentences for six members of the infamous “Goon Squad” of the sheriff’s department in Rankin County, population 157,000.

Lexington, seat of Holmes County, drew the Biden administration’s attention mostly because of Jefferson. Twice she went to Washington to lobby officials and lay out her case. She had collected claims of rampant abuses allegedly committed by the small department’s chiefs and officers: that they were targeting Black people for prosecution; falsifying or destroying evidence; committing assaults, including of a young disabled woman; and coercing Black women into sex. In one instance, they were accused of pulling a pregnant woman out of her car and throwing her to the ground. The woman said she later suffered a miscarriage.

Jefferson was also struck by an onslaught of relatively mundane abuses: what she describes as a sort of death by traffic ticket.

She first heard about the nighttime police checkpoints, near Black-owned bars and outside events at the predominantly Black high school, during a phone call from a local resident in the spring of 2022. Police would check driver’s licenses and make arrests for unpaid fines, the caller said. That led to more fines, jail time and bond, which many of the arrestees could not pay.

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The abuse of law enforcement power to maximize municipal revenue gained national attention nearly a decade ago when the Justice Department revealed it in Ferguson, Mo. — as part of an investigation of local police after a White officer’s shooting of a Black teenager touched off a debate over race and policing.

In Lexington, a town where about 1 in 6 people are White, 99 percent of those arrested are Black, according to jail logs reviewed by The Washington Post.

Jefferson began meeting with many of them, making weekly trips in her cracked-windshield Mini Cooper from her home in Hattiesburg, 150 miles away, to record their accounts. On behalf of her social justice nonprofit, JULIAN, she mobilized a network of reform-minded lawyers to help represent defendants in Lexington’s municipal court.

Jefferson spent two nights in jail after her own arrest, declining to pay the fee for what she saw as an unlawful charge of disturbing the peace, among other counts. Dressed in an orange jumpsuit, she found potential clients among her cellmates — women who described officers pressuring them into sex to avoid arrest. She took notes with a pen, which is forbidden inside the jail but was slipped to her by a kind guard.

After she got out, local reporters interviewed her in the parking lot of Lexington’s library.

“They’ve been terrorizing Black citizens here,” Jefferson said.

Sam Dobbins, Henderson’s predecessor, was hired as Lexington’s police chief in 2021, as residents were complaining about an increase in crime.

His solution: aggressively police the roads. Officers quickly tripled violations issued for “disturbing the peace” and “following too close,” according to data obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union via public-records request.

According to officers who have since left the department, Dobbins insisted on having the cars of Black arrestees towed rather than allowing family members or friends to pick up the vehicles — as was once the practice in Lexington, a poor town in the fourth-poorest county in the United States, according to U.S. census data.

Both Dobbins and Henderson declined interview requests. Dobbins did not respond to questions about the towing directive or the financial burden it put on people already struggling to make ends meet.

For Robert Lee Hooker, who joined the department in 2021, the change in policy crossed a line. Hooker, who is Black, started recording his conversations with the chief.

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One day in 2022, according to a recording reviewed by The Post, Dobbins assured Hooker he would cover for him if Hooker killed “in cold blood.” Dobbins used the n-word and a hom*ophobic slur, bragged that he’d killed 13 people in his career, and seemed to relish the notion that Lexington’s Black residents feared him, the review showed.

JULIAN, which by then had also heard accusations of police abuses from several Lexington residents, began lining up lawyers for those who had been arrested or alleged mistreatment, and holding meetings at a community center. Some who spoke up at those meetings have told Jefferson that police later pulled them over, apparently as retribution.

Jefferson talked to residents about suing the department, asking them to trust a justice system that many viewed with suspicion and fear. She told Hooker he should make his recordings of Dobbins public.

Hooker soon left the department and released the audio via the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, triggering national headlines and outrage. The board of aldermen fired Dobbins in a 3-2 vote, and Henderson was named as his replacement.

Lexington’s mayor, Robin McCrory, who is White, declined to be interviewed.

Henderson had joined the department in 2015. While working in Lexington, he held down a second job as police chief in even smaller Goodman, Miss. He left the latter job after being accused of sexually assaulting a woman he arrested in 2019.

Close to half of Lexington’s police officers quit after the Dobbins recording was released. Once Henderson became chief in Lexington, he tried to bolster the ranks by hiring the inexperienced and untrained.

Again, it was a disgruntled former police officer who blew the whistle.

A family story

Jefferson traces her intolerance of racism and her fascination with the law to 1991, when her aunt and grandmother were domestic employees of federal judge Charles Pickering of Mississippi.

Pickering entered the national spotlight when Senate Democrats filibustered his 2001 appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. Among their concerns: the judge’s personal connections to segregationists and segregationist organizations during the civil rights movement in Mississippi.

The young Jefferson regularly played with Pickering’s granddaughter, sometimes running laps around Pickering’s estate. One day when Jefferson was 5, she watched from a distance as Pickering delivered a new directive to her aunt and grandmother: Jill could no longer go inside the house unless she was working with them. Jefferson said she didn’t socialize with the judge’s granddaughter again. Her aunt later told her that she believed Pickering forbade the friendship because his granddaughter was White, and Jill was Black.

Banished to the lawn during Mississippi summer days, Jefferson said, she felt like a “stray dog.” Confused and angry, she aspired to someday command the authority that Pickering wielded.

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“He seemed to be able to navigate the world and make things happen,” Jefferson said. “I wanted to do what he did, but do it to get back at him and other White people who I could tell were racist, even though I didn’t really know what that was then.”

Pickering, 87, told The Post that Jefferson’s accusation about her and his granddaughter was “absolutely not true,” though he said he may have discouraged his employees from allowing Jill to interfere with their household work.

Her version of the story remains a foundational memory, however.

Much later, after leaving a corporate law job she found soulless, Jefferson founded JULIAN. It was named for her former mentor Julian Bond, the famed civil rights leader who was a professor at the University of Virginia, Jefferson’s alma mater, and died in 2015. In addition to representing poor clients, the nonprofit, based in Hattiesburg, has investigated and revealed modern-day lynchings in Mississippi.

At first in Lexington, JULIAN focused on helping to arrange lawyers for criminal defendants who couldn’t afford them. Soon, Jefferson felt she had the makings of a lawsuit, and enough evidence to compel a state or federal investigation.

In sworn depositions, affidavits and witness interviews, residents had described being dragged and pistol-whipped while handcuffed; arrested after they were pulled over for infractions as trivial as vehicle tag violations; trapped in locked police cars after their arrests with windows shut and no air conditioning in the summer; and taken into custody under a city law that makes it a crime to “curse, insult, deride, ridicule, or use abusive language” toward an officer who is “properly performing his official duties.”

In May last year, 44-year-old Leroy Secherest told JULIAN that police had retaliated against him for interrupting officers who were beating a young, developmentally disabled woman he knew. Secherest said he was driving down Highway 12 when he saw officers punching her.

Days later, after Secherest posted about the alleged assault on Facebook, his son called and said he was being arrested at Lexington’s basketball courts. Secherest said he rushed there and Henderson told him: “I’ve been waiting to catch up with you. … Stay out of police business.”

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Secherest said officers body-slammed him, put him in a choke hold and Tasered him. An arrest report accuses him of possession of a controlled substance, based on a small amount of marijuana police say they found in Secherest’s car after entering the vehicle to turn it off. The report also accuses him of disorderly conduct, saying he refused to take his hand out of his pocket and used an “aggressive” tone.

Secherest, who denies being disorderly, spent the night in jail but has not been formally charged or received any notice of a court date. His son was arrested, too; police wrote in Leroy Secherest’s arrest report that they found drugs and a gun in the car the son was traveling in.

Jefferson said JULIAN has not yet received footage of Leroy Secherest’s arrest from Lexington, which also did not include it in response to public information requests from The Post.

“That’s been a consistent problem in this case,” Jefferson said. “And we know the reason why — they delete the footage that shows them breaking the law.”

Lexington City Attorney Katherine Barrett Riley did not respond to questions about whether the department has deleted body-camera footage.

The elder Secherest’s arrest became a key anecdote in Jefferson’s campaign.

She’d already called the Mississippi attorney general’s office, which rarely investigates local law enforcement agencies and wasn’t required to investigate even fatal police shootings until 2022, but suggested she report her findings to the FBI. Then she emailed and made calls to the office of Gov. Tate Reeves (R). Neither office responded to The Post’s requests for comment.

Jefferson said she offered several allegations to the local FBI field office. When the FBI declined to investigate, she said, she turned to its parent agency, the Justice Department.

Under President Biden and President Barack Obama, the nation’s premier law enforcement agency has launched investigations of dozens of cities for unconstitutional policing since 2009, including New Orleans; Oakland, Calif.; and Louisville. When it finds a pattern and practice of wrongdoing, the civil rights division generally seeks a court-mandated compliance agreement. Justice Department civil rights officials may also recommend that the department’s criminal division consider bringing charges.

Pulled over, then hired

Some of Jefferson’s most powerful allegations came from her interviews with Maytrice Shields, who came forward last summer as a recently ousted Lexington police officer willing to share her story.

She helped Jefferson understand a puzzle she had been struggling to solve. What motivated Henderson, a Black police chief, to allegedly continue his racist predecessor’s discriminatory practices?

Shields, who was hired by Henderson in December 2022, painted a portrait of a chief drunk on power.

She had moved from Jackson to Lexington that year after getting approved for low-income housing for herself and her tween daughter. On her second day in town, she said, she accidentally ran a stop sign near the police station, and was surprised when the officer who gave her a ticket invited her to stop by the station and apply for a job.

Shields, 31, said Henderson quickly made his intentions clear.

“He said, ‘They’re gonna like you, but you’re mine,’” Shields recalled.

Henderson nullified the traffic ticket, she said, and invited her to shadow officers. Four weeks later, he hired her. Like several others in the department, she had not attended a single police academy class.

Officers in Mississippi can work as a part-time trainee for up to two years without completing academy training, but they are not allowed to make arrests or carry firearms. Shields said that after just one month on the job, she was armed with a pistol, given a squad car and allowed to conduct traffic stops by herself, despite a state law that requires trainees be supervised to exercise law enforcement powers.

She said Henderson told her to pull over cars that seemed likely to yield guns or drugs — they’d figure out the justification later. In interviews with Jefferson and a sworn affidavit, Shields described watching officers seize legally owned guns and concoct false charges. She said Henderson tossed written complaints into the garbage and deleted body-camera footage depicting officer wrongdoing — she said she had once watched Henderson delete footage of the officers who dragged a Black woman out of her car, launching the infant in her lap to the pavement.

Riley, the city attorney, said the city does not have any record of an incident that led to the injury of a small child.

“I think they take joy in antagonizing people,” Shields said. “They’re not actually fighting crime. Their main goal is to get money, and they get it from whoever is vulnerable, gullible, naive.”

Throughout her time with the department, Shields said, Henderson also made sexual advances toward her. She said she acquiesced on one occasion, masturbating the chief behind his desk.

They had a falling-out after she had been on the job two months, she said, when Shields teased Henderson for being sexually involved with another colleague. Henderson suspended her. On her last day, Henderson choked her against a wall as she returned to the station to drop off her equipment, Shields said.

She said she has been pulled over five times in Lexington since that day and has moved elsewhere. She tries to avoid Holmes County entirely.

Riley said the Holmes County Sheriff’s Department investigated Shields’s assault allegation and took no action after a witness disputed her account. The city attorney did not elaborate. As with the other allegations against him, Henderson declined to answer questions from The Post.

Shields corroborated what Jefferson had heard from other accusers: that several officers pressured women into sex as an alternative to paying fines or being arrested. JULIAN’s 2022 lawsuit, Harris v. Dobbins, accuses Henderson of making sexual advances toward a plaintiff’s daughter and targeting her for traffic violations when she refused.

Discovery for that case closed in June; Lexington is expected to submit a brief calling for dismissal of the claims in July.

Arrest logbooks and a trial

In the summer of 2022, Jefferson requested records from the Holmes/Humphreys County regional jail of arrests made under Henderson and Dobbins. Instead of a digital file, the warden invited Jefferson into the administrative offices, where she found stacks of leather-bound logbooks listing the names, ages, race and other information of arrestees.

Jefferson photographed page after tattered page of the handwritten records with her phone, then catalogued the arrests in an Excel spreadsheet. Portions of the logbooks were unreadable, but Jefferson found that between June 2021 and June 2023, Black people were arrested far more often than White people, even adjusting for their percentage of the population.

About 40 percent of the arrests of Black people were for minor violations like disregarding a traffic device or no proof of insurance.

“You won’t find many White people arrested by Lexington,” Barry Rule, the warden, said in an interview. “They stereotype.”

Jefferson has filed two federal lawsuits — in August 2022 and January 2024 — containing allegations by 22 named plaintiffs against Lexington, its police department and individual officers. Some of the claims were dismissed after the judge reviewed body-camera footage from certain incidents that Jefferson said she sought but could not get.

Riley, the city attorney, would not comment on the remaining allegations while the lawsuits are pending.

In all, at least six lawsuits have been filed in federal court against Lexington and its police department since 2019, including one by the ACLU on behalf of a Black woman who claimed she was wrongfully arrested by Dobbins and Henderson in 2021. In that case and three others, Lexington submitted denials and claims of immunity from civil penalty under the doctrine of qualified immunity, a legal framework that often protects individual officers.

Since announcing their investigation in November, Justice Department investigators have interviewed Rule, the warden, and much of his staff, as well as many of Jefferson’s clients.

In February, after Jefferson and several Lexington residents made fresh complaints of unfair policing, the Justice Department’s Clarke sent a letter to town leaders. She told them that arresting people for unpaid fines with no consideration of whether they can afford to pay violates the Constitution.

“It’s time to bring an end to a two-tiered system of justice in our country in which a person’s income determines whether they walk free or whether they go to jail,” Clarke’s letter said.

A month earlier, Jefferson had stood trial for her own arrest the previous summer, when she had refused to pay the $35 fee to avoid being jailed for failure to comply, disturbing the peace, resisting arrest and blocking a roadway.

Like many criminal defendants in Mississippi, she faced not a jury of her peers, but an elected judge in Justice Court who is not required to be a lawyer. The Justice Court verdict can be appealed to a higher court for a jury trial, presided over by a judge who is a member of the state bar.

Jefferson and her attorney laid out her case, one starkly at odds with the government’s version of events.

She said she had twice driven by a location where officers had pulled over a car and were questioning the driver. She recorded parts of the encounter on her cellphone. An officer testifying for the prosecution said he initiated contact with Jefferson because she was blocking a roadway, which Jefferson denies.

As part of her presentation to the court, she read aloud from an affidavit from a former Lexington officer, who was still with the department in the months before Jefferson’s arrest. He reported hearing officers talking about finding a way to arrest Jefferson.

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Holmes County Justice Court Judge Marcus Fisher, a 30-year-old who is Black and is not a member of the Mississippi Bar, found Jefferson guilty of all the charges.

She said she had expected the result in Justice Court and considered not mounting a defense and waiting for her opportunity with a jury, but fought the case anyway as a signal to town residents looking to her for solutions.

“We knew this would be a sham,” Jefferson said. “But I don’t want the community to think the person fighting for them is just going to give up on fighting for herself.”

Local and regional media scrutinized the conviction, and Jefferson received an emailed letter from the court days later. The conviction had been vacated.

She wondered — for the first time, she said — if Lexington’s leaders could be convinced they are not above the law.

She took on a small Mississippi town’s police. Then they arrested her. (2024)
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