Police Roadblocks Are Rights-Free Zones In Madison County, Mississippi

For generations, poor, black residents of Canton, Mississippi have lived under siege from a heavy-handed sheriff's department.


CANTON, Miss. — The sheriff's deputy has his hand around Khadafy Manning's neck. Manning, a 35-year-old black man, is standing rod straight, or at least as straight as someone with a debilitating spinal injury can, with his hands cuffed behind his back, dressed in his underwear, asking why he is being humiliated in his own living room.

"Officer, please. Why are you handling me like this?"

"Because you ain't acting right," the deputy responds.

It was 7 in the morning on June 26, 2016, and the scene was caught on video. Filming the encounter was Khadafy's quick-thinking wife, Quinnetta Thomas. According to Thomas and Manning, six deputies from the Madison County Sheriff's Department (MCSD) barged into their apartment without a warrant and demanded they sign a false witness statement about an alleged robbery at their neighbor's house.

Manning, who walks with a cane due to a chronic nerve condition, came hobbling out of the bedroom, said he had rights and didn't have to sign anything. It's at that point, Thomas says, that the deputies got angry and she reached for the camera.

The roughly one-minute-long video Thomas recorded is now part of a pile of evidence in a sweeping class-action civil rights lawsuit filed against the MCSD in May by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Mississippi and the New York law firm of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett.

The lawsuit alleges the county has subjected its citizens to more than a decade of brazenly illegal and discriminatory policing—unconstitutional roadblocks that only appear in black neighborhoods, warrantless home invasions, and aggressive "jump out" squads that target young black men doing nothing more than walking down the street. Essentially, the ACLU is arguing that Madison County police have turned black and minority neighborhoods into places where the Bill of Rights no longer applies.

"What is shocking about the case is the degree of constant constitutional intrusion and how long that high degree of intrusion has been permitted," says Paloma Wu, an attorney for the ACLU of Mississippi. "We're absolutely convinced that this is a program that has existed for more than a decade, if not decades. It outlives any single deputy or sheriff. This, we think, absolutely rises to the level of a policy to target black people for unconstitutional searches and seizures through a variety of means."

Interviews with local activists and longtime residents in Madison County reveal a community that feels under siege in their own houses and day-to-day lives, a county government that has been willfully indifferent to those concerns for generations, and a place where whether you have basic rights against police abuse comes down to what side of the county you live in, what side of the tracks you're on, and whether you're willing to speak out.

The lawsuit also comes at a time when, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the U.S. Justice Department is less willing to second-guess local police. It is currently reviewing Obama-era consent decrees between the federal government and police departments that were found to be violating citizens' rights. If the Justice Department pulls back from its oversight role, it will be up to civil rights watchdog groups and the courts to police the police. How the ACLU lawsuit against Madison County fares could be a bellwether for police reform during the Trump administration.

'Unsafe in Our Own Home'

Nearly a year after her encounter with the Madison County Sheriff's Department, Thomas, 29, sits in her family's living room in Canton—a small town of under 15,000 people about 30 minutes north of the state capital of Jackson—reliving the scene. She has just returned from cosmetology school.

"We've all had problems dealing with Madison County," Thomas says. "My situation is one of the prime examples of how Madison County works. They stormed in and made us feel unsafe in our own home."

credit: CJ Ciaramella

Thomas says that after her husband tried to assert his rights, the deputies handcuffed him, began choking him, and told them, "You're either going to be witnesses or suspects."

Thomas worried that she didn't have the money to get herself or her husband out of jail. Her three children and her niece were in the house. She wanted the police out of her living room, immediately. She did the cold math and agreed to sign a witness statement about an event she hadn't seen.

When Manning still refused, Thomas says deputies dragged him down the stairs, calling him "Mr. Cripple." They took him to a police cruiser, still in nothing but his underwear. And they beat him until he agreed to sign the statement as well. His "face was swollen and bruised from the assault, and his wrists were cut and black and blue from the tight handcuffs," according to the ACLU lawsuit. "Hospital records show that Mr. Manning suffered both a sprained wrist and chest contusions." After, one of the deputies allegedly told Thomas that she would be better off with him dead.

Since the incident, Thomas says her 5-year-old son has made a habit of keeping doors locked at all times.

"I haven't spoken with my son about it," Thomas says, "but when I asked him why he kept locking the door, he said because he was scared the police were going to come and take his mommy and daddy away to jail."

Asked if there's anything she'd like to add, Thomas purses her lips and collects herself for a moment, still drained from talking about her young child.

"When stuff like this goes on in Madison County, everyone around assumes that black folks are just making it up, that we're delusional, that we don't know what we're talking about," she says, "but this is real. Here in Madison County, it's real. This is actually going on."

What's Actually Going On

The ACLU of Mississippi launched a full-scale investigation into the MCSD last year after it received several complaints that it considered concrete enough to sustain a lawsuit. With pro bono assistance from Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, and after thousands of dollars' worth of public records requests and dozens of interviews with Madison County residents, the lawsuit has 10 named plaintiffs and a stunning range of allegations.

According to the lawsuit, the department has been running unconstitutional roadblocks almost exclusively in black neighborhoods for at least a decade starting in the early 2000s. Plainclothes deputies will sometimes set up multiple roving "checkpoints" several times in one day, often outside of low-income housing or on side streets, not major thoroughfares. The MCSD's official policy allows deputies to "conduct random roadblocks for all traffic violations, escapees, or wanted subjects."

Once drivers are stopped, deputies run IDs, often including those of passengers, to check for warrants and outstanding court fines and fees. The latter also makes the roadblock program a revenue collection scheme for the county. "Any claimed purpose of traffic safety is also belied by the fact that MCSD deputies regularly require passengers, as well as pedestrians passing by roadblocks, to produce identification and submit to searches," the ACLU says in the lawsuit.

"When stuff like this goes on in Madison County, everyone around assumes that black folks are just making it up, that we're delusional, that we don't know what we're talking about, but this is real."

It can take 10 to 20 minutes to get through one of these roadblocks, assuming the driver does not consent to a search of his or her vehicle. And the ACLU says deputies often poke around for probable cause to begin a search. The notices the MCSD posts on social media regarding upcoming roadblocks list dozens of potential locations, leaving residents to rely on informal networks and private Facebook groups to stay abreast of police activity. The net effect of this is that black residents of Canton and Flora, a small community to the west of Canton in north Madison County, have to arrange their daily schedules around the activity of the MCSD or submit to intrusive searches, sometimes multiple times in one day, to enter or leave their own homes and go about their daily lives.

It's been "pervasive over time in majority-black places," Wu says. "Everybody in certain areas knows about them, but if you go south into Madison and Ridgeland," two majority-white towns, "it's unlikely you can find anyone who knows about them."

One of the named plaintiffs in the ACLU suit, Nick Singleton, "has been stopped at the MCSD's roadblocks a minimum of 20 times" over the past year and "detained at dozens of roadblocks without reasonable suspicion in the past three years," according to the lawsuit, and has been on occasion required to show license and insurance to the same deputy twice in one day. Several Canton residents interviewed by Reason also said they had been subjected to roadblocks countless times.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 2000 case City of Indianapolis v. Edmond that police roadblocks or checkpoints are only constitutional when they serve a specific road safety concern, such as stopping drunk drivers, not general crime control. Yet in one public notice of upcoming roadblocks cited by the ACLU in its lawsuit, the MCSD says the purpose of its checkpoints "will be to check for Driver's licenses, warrants and whatever else we encounter."

"We think these roadblocks violate the Fourth Amendment, apart from racial targeting, period," Wu says. "The fact that these type of general crime deterrent roadblocks are only in the black community additionally violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment."

There are also the alleged warrantless home invasions, like Quinnetta Thomas' case, and the use of "jump out" squads, where deputies roll up to young black men traveling on foot, detain them, and search them for no apparent reason.

One of the things Wu found most shocking as she prepared the ACLU's case was the "alarming consistency" in people's stories from one generation to the next. "These are stories you can get from people in their 60s and people in their 20s," she says.

Betty Jean Williams Tucker, one of the plaintiffs in the ACLU case, says that about five years ago her grandson was in her front yard, fixing his brother's bicycle, when an unmarked truck came speeding toward him. Two plainclothes officers jumped out and tackled him to the ground, searching his pockets. Finding nothing, the deputies left. Tucker shouted at them, asking what her grandson had done. "Tell your grandson to wear a shirt next time," they responded, according to the lawsuit.

These tactics are not exclusive to Madison County. The police department in Mobile, Alabama, announced this month that it will be setting up mandatory "safety checkpoints" in high-crime neighborhoods, despite community complaints that the roadblocks disproportionately affect minorities. The ACLU is currently suing Milwaukee for suspicionless stops and searches. In Baltimore, roving plainclothes units known as "jump-out boys" or "knockers" were prevalent before they were disbanded last year, and in Washington, D.C., a longtime criminal defense lawyer once told me the unmarked SUVs of the Metropolitan Police Department's vice and gun recovery squads were such a common sight in the poor wards of the District that when they rolled by, young men on the corner would reflexively lift up their shirts to show they didn't have guns stuffed in their waistbands.

But Wu says that the MCSD's actions represent a "sharpened iteration" of more diluted policing methods that exist in other departments around the country.

In response to this "sharpened iteration," the ACLU of Mississippi is pursuing what's known in civil rights litigation as a Monell claim—named after the 1978 Supreme Court case Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York, which held that a local government is a "person" that can be held liable for deprivation of civil rights. A Monell claim attempts to sue an entire city agency or government, not just an individual police officer or official, for civil rights violations.

Winning such a claim is not easy. ACLU lawyers will have to prove not only that Madison County Sheriff's Department deputies violated residents' constitutional rights, but also that there is a clear pattern and practice of this illegal behavior, backed by either official department policy or deliberate indifference from supervisors.

"We're not going after nor do we think this is a problem of bad apples," Wu says. "We're going after the system. That fact that, legally, we have to show intentional racial discrimination under the Fourteenth amendment is one reason why we go through the statistics, why we go through the history, to show this is not an accident. It's intentional."

Madison County is only 38 percent black, but black residents made up 81 percent of roadblock arrests between May and September of 2016 and "face over 3.2 times the odds for white individuals of being charged only with a petty revenue-generating vehicle infraction, like having a burned out headlight or no seat belt," according to figures culled from MCSD records by the ACLU. "This data suggests a pattern of population-targeting as opposed to public safety-motivated policing."

Madison County Sheriff Randy Tucker was not available for comment for this story. However, he said in a statement to the The Clarion-Ledger in May that his department intends to "vigorously fight" the lawsuit. "Our deputies are professional law enforcement officials who enforce Mississippi laws," he told the paper. "If a law is broken, appropriate action is taken regardless of the race of the one breaking said law. As always, we have fairly and diligently executed the duties for which we are required."

"We're not going after nor do we think this is a problem of bad apples," says Paloma Wu, an attorney for the ACLU of Mississippi. "We're going after the system."

However, these allegations are not just coming from the outside. Last year, Robert Gibson, a former Madison County Sheriff's deputy, filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the department, claiming he was fired after complaining about racial discrimination against black employees at the MCSD and the black communities it polices. Gibson, a black Marine Corps veteran, says he once saw MCSD deputies beat a handcuffed suspect. (An attorney for Gibson did not respond to requests for comment.)

Gibson's lawsuit cites a letter from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency that investigates workplace discrimination, that found there was "reasonable cause to believe [Gibson] was discriminated against in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act."

'You Must Look to the Past'

Bill Chandler, 74, is doing some work in the election office located in the basement of Jackson City Hall. A longtime union organizer across the South and the current executive director of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA), Chandler has been around for enough decades to know the value of unglamorous precinct work in a non-election year.

It's also given him a long perspective. In many ways, one can draw a direct line between the events in Jackson and Madison County during the 1960s, when the area was one of the hubs of the state's civil rights movement, and its problems today.

"This city was about 50–50 black and white, and as the civil rights movement grew, white people got scared," Chandler says.

Desegregation, along with suburban residential development, spurred white flight from Jackson that continued for decades and flipped nearby Madison County's demographics, dividing it between the now-affluent and predominantly white southern half and mostly black northern half. Today, Madison County is the wealthiest in Mississippi, but the median income in Canton, which is 75 percent black, is $40,000 compared to $90,000 in Madison, an 86 percent-white suburb.

During the '60s and '70s, the county sheriff was Billy Noble, a man who would have been cartoonish if he weren't also a virulent racist in a position of power. Through the '80s, the sheriff's department faced lawsuits and was held in contempt by a federal judge for refusing to improve conditions inside its county jail. In 1999, Madison County elected Toby Trowbridge to the post, which he would hold until 2012. Trowbridge largely avoided the legal foibles of his predecessors, but he embraced some of the methods that Noble had used with gusto, such as roadblocks and car searches.

In 2004, David Archie, a community activist, formed a coalition of local groups, including MIRA, called Citizens Against Racial Profiling. Archie argued the MCSD was pulling over minority drivers for suspicionless breathalyzer tests.

Chandler also says that during the early 2000s, the MCSD would regularly detain undocumented immigrants, take bail money from their families, and then tell them that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had put a hold on their release.

Other cases, Chandler says, amounted to "outright extortion. Deputies and Canton police would pull people over and tell them, 'We have to take you to jail unless you can pay the fine right now.'"

A key point in minority residents' complaints about the Madison County Sheriff's Department is that these heavy-handed tactics are practically unheard of in the southern half of the county, despite white residents of Madison County being 1.4 times more likely to be arrested for drunk driving, according to the ACLU.

In Canton, which has historically been divided by train tracks between the black west side and east white side, it's even harder to miss the disparity.

Concerned Citizens of Canton

It was around 2006 when Canton resident Laura Elaine Blair started to notice the roadblocks. Over the next five years, she would become a driving force against the Madison County Sheriff's Department.

It started with a series of police blockades.

"I live on the corner of George Washington and Singleton Street," she says. The sheriff's department would come there and set up roadblocks—sometimes twice a day; once it was three times in a single day. Then I started hearing people complaining that they were setting roadblocks up in other places."

credit: CJ Ciaramella

In person, Blair is warm and exuberant, but she also gives the impression of someone with a formidable amount of energy and competence—someone you would go to with a problem, not someone you would want to consider you a problem. Blair was not a regular activist, but the stories bothered her. She never saw or heard about these things happening on the other side of town.

Her cousin Brenda Grice, a lifelong Canton resident, had noticed the same thing.

"I was seeing a lot of roadblocks being set up in the black community. I mean more than three times a week," Grice says. "I was also seeing Madison County roughing people up, even my son. He was on a motorbike. They got behind him and pulled him over, and they roughed him up like a piece of paper. It was happening quite often, and it began to get serious."

So in 2007, Grice convinced Blair they should do something about it. The two began collecting complaints from other Canton residents and figuring out how to navigate the local bureaucracy. Letters and stories started to come in. Police, residents said, designed the roadblocks to interfere with their daily lives.

"If [sheriff's deputies] knew people were having a party or wedding reception, they would sit outside, or over in the cut, and set up a roadblock close to that party," Blair says. "We started getting little complaints like that."

She filed a request for public records on the roadblocks to get more information but says the MCSD ignored her.

Eventually, Blair and Grice brought a petition with more than 600 signatures before the Madison County Board of Supervisors. At a board meeting, she read a letter outlining their concerns about the racial targeting. She called their group the Concerned Citizens of Canton.

And then Sheriff Trowbridge stood up to have his say.

"I had never met Trowbridge before," Blair says. "He just stood up and mowed me down. He said, 'I don't care if you're blue, yellow, black, or white, we're going to enforce the law in this town. Too bad if you have a problem with it."

It's a line that Trowbridge would often repeat. "The problem is, some people don't want the law enforced," he said in 2008 in response to accusations of racial profiling. "They want to be able to move around when they want to, do what they want to—with no consequences. As long as I'm sheriff, there's nothing wrong with enforcing the law."

The county board of supervisors backed their sheriff, as did voters, who re-elected him twice. However, Blair's petition caught the eye of the local media.

The Clarion Ledger obtained public records showing the MCSD conducted 92 roadblocks in 2007. "Those documents show many roadblocks were set up in areas that have higher concentrations of African-American or Hispanic residents, and roadblocks were conducted in the same places multiple times throughout the year," the paper reported.

Those reports in turn caught the attention of the state ACLU chapter. With the help of the civil liberties group, Blair held monthly meetings to educate Canton residents on their rights during a police stop.

Police did not respond favorably to citizens asserting their rights, Grice recalls. "When you told them they had no right to search your car, oh, they got angry," she says.

A similar group calling itself the Concerned Citizens of Flora also sprang up. The campaign against Trowbridge culminated in a March 2008 protest demanding his resignation. The protest was organized by Concerned Citizens of Canton and Archie's group, Citizens Against Racial Profiling, which likewise had no luck in convincing Trowbridge or the county board of supervisors to address its claims. More than 100 people gathered outside the Canton courthouse with plans to march to the Madison County jail.

"Over the years since the election of Toby Trowbridge as sheriff of Madison County, numerous individuals have brought forth claims of harassment, intimidation, discrimination and outright brutality by the Madison County sheriff's department," Archie said in a press release prior to the march. "Racial profiling and deputy misconduct are widespread and well known."

About halfway along the three-mile route, the Canton police set up a blockade and told the marchers they didn't have the necessary parade permit and threatened to arrest anyone who tried to continue.

Blair and several other activists had heard in advance that the Canton police were setting up a blockade. She was a single mother with a young child and couldn't afford to go to jail. She decided to drive to the courthouse rather than walk.

Archie and thirteen others, including a senior citizen, chose to be arrested. A Mississippi appeals court later overturned Archie's two convictions stemming from the arrests, noting "serious constitutional issues" with both of them, as well with as the city's parade ordinance.

Around 2011, Blair says, after years of opposition, "the roadblocks stopped. It's almost like they disappeared for a while."

But the peace was short lived. Trowbridge announced in 2011 that he was not seeking re-election. Madison County voters elected Randy Tucker to replace him in 2012.

Tucker had been the deputy chief sheriff in the county over the past decade. He allegedly participated in a warrantless and consent-free home search of one of the ACLU's plaintiffs, Nick Singleton, around six years ago, according to the lawsuit. Now, as sheriff, Tucker has not only continued Trowbridge's policing program but "expanded its scope," the ACLU lawsuit says. "In essence, Sheriff Tucker has empowered MCSD deputies with enhanced authority and implicit encouragement to target the members of Madison County's Black community for unreasonable searches and seizures." The MCSD's reputation today among minority residents is much the same as it was in the Trowbridge era.

Blair and Grice are both in middle age now. Their organizing days are behind them, but the same issues remain for a new generation to face.

"That girl that was on the news, videotaping her husband," Grice says, referring to Quinnetta Thomas, "this ain't just start happening. It's been going on for a long time."

Freedom House

A bit down the road from Blair and Grice's homes, next to a convenience store, is the Canton Freedom House Civil Rights Museum. During the dangerous days of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, the small, single-story wooden building was a hub for organizers and a place where out-of-state volunteers could get a night of sleep in relative safety.

Today it still has chicken wire on the front windows, a legacy from when people would try to hurl molotov cocktails through them. Inside, there is a double-barrel shotgun leaning in a corner that was occasionally used to persuade "unwanted guests" to take their business elsewhere, according to a sign.

Glen Cotton, 66, lovingly curates the museum. The two-lane road that runs past the house, George Washington Avenue, is named after his grandfather, who offered the Freedom House to civil rights organizers in 1963. Cotton's grandparents hosted many of the most prominent civil rights leaders of the era and owned a small grocery store across the street from the house. Someone tried to blow up their store with dynamite in 1964, Cotton says. The blasting caps went off, but the sticks did not. If they had, he would not be here today.

Outside the Freedom House, sitting at a picnic table under shade of a sprawling old tree, several middle-age Canton men are idling away the late afternoon hours. Right at this intersection, they say, within a stone's throw of an enduring reminder of the state's dark racial history, is where the Madison County Sheriff's Department set up roadblocks until the ACLU's lawsuit brought unwanted publicity. For years, law enforcement intercepted people leaving the convenience store and heading home to the low-income housing just up the street.

One of the men at the table, Tim Taylor, says he was pulled over last year by a sheriff's deputy just a as he and a friend, both black, were driving to a high school basketball game in a convertible Mini Cooper. Taylor, 53, kept asking the deputy why they'd been pulled over. The deputy saw a pile of books in the backseat and asked, "Which one of you wants to be a lawyer?"

"In essence, Sheriff Tucker has empowered MCSD deputies with enhanced authority and implicit encouragement to target the members of Madison County's Black community for unreasonable searches and seizures."

"I didn't say anything, but I did say it's kind of odd that you'd stop two black men in Madison County when most of the white guys riding up the street are full of beer, hooping and hollering out of their vehicles and waving the rebel flag," Taylor says.

After running their licenses, the deputy let them go with no explanation for why they had been pulled over. "If you have any complaints," Taylor says the deputy told him, "go to your lawyer." Taylor wrote a complaint to the Madison County Sheriff's Department. He never got a response.

As the interview wound down, Taylor brought up Quinetta Thomas' case unprompted.

"That young lady that was on TV just a couple weeks ago, describing what happened to her husband, that is no lie," Thomas says. "You saw on that film the unprofessionalism, the throwback to the 1960s, when white cops would just stop you and whip your ass if they caught you on the sidewalk or if you looked at a white woman in the face. These things are happening. They set up roadblocks in unmarked cars. You get there, and they jump out on you. They do it to you all the time up and down these streets."

'Just Hang Up a Sign'

It's not hard to find similar stories in Canton. Thomas' cousin, Taquisha Johnson, sits silently in the family living room as her relative is interviewed, until she's asked if she has ever experienced anything similar.

Johnson says one day in 2014, two men ran into her apartment through her unlocked front door from the parking lot outside. They were being chased by an MCSD deputy with a drawn gun. When her fiancé, who was on house arrest and wearing an ankle bracelet, came out of the bathroom, the deputy ordered him to the hallway floor. Gun drawn, the officer then entered the bedroom of Johnson's 11-year-old daughter, who was lying in bed.

The deputy eventually released the two men he had chased into Johnson's apartment, but accused her fiancé of selling drugs in the parking lot. He was charged with resisting arrest and failure to obey a police order. As he was being led away, Johnson says the alarm on his ankle bracelet started to go off, which would seem to give lie to the claim that he had been outside already.

"Who are you?" the deputies asked when she started to protest.

"This is my house."

"Are you his wife?"

"No, I'm his fiancée."

"Well, then you're nobody," the deputy replied, according to Johnson.

"I was pissed," she recalls. "I'm grown, you're grown. Why do you have to be disrespectful? You came in waving a gun. What if you had actually killed my baby? Then what?"

After she got her fiancé out of jail, Johnson went to talk to a supervisor at the Madison County Sheriff's Department about the deputy's conduct.

"He said he'd talk to the officer, but I couldn't fill out a formal complaint," Johnson says. "He said they didn't have the paperwork. That was the end of it. I didn't hear anything else about it."

There are many places like Madison County across the country. By and large, these rural areas are where criminal justice in the U.S. happens—far from the watchful eyes of high-power civil rights attorneys and national media outlets. That sort of pressure has led to some reforms of policing in places like Baltimore and New York City. But in more rural areas, institutional momentum and voters who favor law-and-order rhetoric keep things running as they have for a long time.

Lawsuits like the ACLU's are time-consuming, expensive, and hard to win. But under an executive branch is reflexively sympathetic to police, the Justice Department appears less willing to use its considerable power to monitor and investigate civil rights abuses by local forces.

These lawsuits could be the only way to advance national police reforms beyond major metropolitan areas. Even if they fail, they will do something quite unprecedented in many of these places: dredge up and call attention to citizen complaints that have been ignored and ridiculed for generations.

The Madison County Sheriff's Department denied an ACLU public records request for complaints that have been made against it, saying it does not track them. But its own policy to ignore those complaints has made it impossible to hide them. They're on everyone's lips.

"All you have to do is look around, call around, or just hang up a sign," Brenda Grice says. "You'd be surprised at the response you get back from people here in Canton, Mississippi."