Delaware’s attorney general is calling for a federal investigation after newly released body camera footage shows Georgia deputies searching through the personal items of Delaware State University’s lacrosse team, contradicting statements from their sheriff.
The development comes amid allegations that the deputies racially profiled the predominately African American student-athletes and their coach last month.
On April 20, the DSU women’s lacrosse team was on a bus headed home from a game in Florida. While traveling on I-95 in Liberty County, Georgia, the bus was pulled over by deputies with the Liberty County Sheriff’s Department.
During a press conference on Tuesday, Liberty County Sheriff William Bowman, who is African American, said the bus was stopped after the driver committed a lane violation. Georgia state law requires a bus or motorcoach to operate in the two most right hand lanes except when the bus or motorcoach is preparing for a left turn or moving to or from a High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV or carpool) lane, according to Bowman.
Bowman also said there were several commercial vehicles stopped that morning including one bus where "contraband" was located.
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“Due to the nature of the detail, a K-9 was part of the stop and an alert was given by the K-9,” Bowman said. “Before entering the motorcoach, the deputies were not aware that this school was historically black or aware of the race of the occupants due to the height of the vehicle and the tinted windows.”
In newly obtained body camera footage however, one of the deputies involved in the traffic stop says, "Just a bunch of dang schoolgirls on the bus. Probably some weed. Maybe," before entering the bus.
Bowman also said that no personal items on the bus were searched. The body camera footage shows the deputies searching through the students' personal items however.
“If there is something in there that is questionable, please tell me now,” the deputy says to the students in the video. “Because if we find it, guess what? We’re not going to be able to help you.”
Pamella Jenkins, head coach of the DSU Women’s Lacrosse team, Sydney Anderson, a member of the team who wrote about the incident in DSU’s student newspaper and DSU President Tony Allen also stated that the deputies searched through the students' personal items.
“It went from two officers to six officers and they brought out their K-9,” Anderson told NBC10. “They started smelling our bags. Going through everything. Our personal hygiene like underwear and everything in the bags and they did that for about twenty minutes.”
"There was misinformation that the individuals were searched. No players were searched and the K9 never entered the vehicle to search them," Bowman wrote. "Only the front luggage area was checked. My comment about personal belongings not being searched referred to the people on the bus and their items with them inside of the vehicle. I saw the students’ video clips so there was no need for me to lie about whether anything was searched. My words about personal belongings need to be clarified."
The deputies ultimately did not find any drugs during the search and the driver was issued a warning for the lane violation, which Bowman confirmed during Tuesday's press conference.
Initial video of the incident posted by Anderson led to outrage and allegations of racial profiling. Bowman said he didn't believe race played any role in the incident.
“As a veteran, a former Georgia State Trooper and a sheriff of this department, I do not exercise racial profiling, allow racial profiling or encourage racial profiling,” Bowman said. “From what I have gathered, I believe that the stop was legal, but I also understand my duty to help the public understand law enforcement while seeking ways to improve services.”
In the days following the incident, Bowman said his department was unaware of the controversy or racial profiling allegations.
“Although I do not believe any racial profiling took place based on the information I currently have, I welcome feedback from our community on ways that our law enforcement practices can be improved while still maintaining the law,” Bowman said. “More than anything, we want feedback from the passengers of the Delaware University lacrosse team.”
In a statement on Wednesday, Allen said Bowman spoke with him about reaching out to the DSU lacrosse team to help the department in "improving its approach to people of color."
Allen also said however that Bowman's public statement and the body camera footage of the incident raised more questions than answers.
“Sheriff Bowman insists that personal items were not searched; the video clearly shows officers searching toiletries and clothes, and even cutting open a family graduation gift," Allen wrote.
"Sheriff Bowman said the officers were unaware of the nature of the passengers on the bus; the audio clearly demonstrates that the officers were aware both that this was a busload of 'schoolgirls,' and that they did not expect to find anything other than marijuana, which the officer who entered the bus said they were not looking for.”
Allen said he would push toward getting "objective, external authorities," to investigate the incident. Delaware’s Attorney General Kathleen Jennings also sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice, asking them to investigate.
"Like so many others, I’m deeply troubled by the actions that our Delaware State University Women's Lacrosse team and staff endured in Georgia this past April," Jennings wrote. "I want to commend these outstanding young women for their valor, and my fellow Delawareans for rallying around them."
Delaware State University is a historically Black university located in Dover, Delaware.