Two years after a cellphone video showed a white sheriff's deputy in Madison County, Mississippi, putting his hands around a handcuffed black man's neck, a federal judge has approved a settlement agreement between the county and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Mississippi that aims to end what community activists say is a generations-long history of unconstitutional and biased policing against minority residents in the rural county.
U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves on Thursday approved a consent decree—a binding agreement overseen by a federal court—that will require the Madison County Sheriff's Department (MCSD) to implement new policies, anti-bias training, and data collection, as well as create a community advisory board.
The settlement is notable because most consent decrees over illegal policing have involved major cities like Chicago and Seattle, and those settlements are often spearheaded by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
"We think it's important because a lot of smaller police departments or police departments in more rural areas, certainly throughout the South, have generally flown much farther under the radar and yet often are plagued by many of the same systemic problems that you see in big-city police departments," says Ezekiel Edwards, director of the ACLU's Criminal Law Reform Project. "We hope it sends a message to other police departments in Mississippi and throughout the South that they are obviously just as obligated to comply with the Constitution."
The consent decree is the result of a class-action civil rights lawsuit filed in 2017 by the ACLU of Mississippi and the law firm of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett.
The lawsuit alleged that Madison County police targeted black residents with unconstitutional checkpoints and warrantless searches, violating their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Specifically, the lawsuit accused the MCSD of setting up illegal roadblocks and pedestrian "checkpoints" outside of majority-black housing complexes, conducting warrantless home invasions, and running aggressive "jump out" squads that targeted young black men doing nothing more than walking down the street.
As Reason detailed in a 2017 investigation, black residents of Madison County have felt under siege from the local sheriff's department for generations, but they have been almost totally ignored by the county government.
One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Quinnetta Manning, captured video of a Madison County sheriff's deputy with his hand around the neck of her husband, whose hands were handcuffed behind his back. According to Manning, six deputies barged into their home at 7 in the morning and demanded they sign a false witness statement about a nearby robbery.
Manning says that after her husband, who walks with a cane due to a chronic nerve condition, tried to assert his rights, the deputies handcuffed him, began choking him, and told them, "You're either going to be witnesses or suspects."
When Manning's husband still refused, she says deputies dragged him down the stairs, calling him "Mr. Cripple." They took him to a police cruiser in nothing but his underwear and beat him until he agreed to sign the statement. 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."
Manning told Reason that, following the incident with MCSD, her son, then five years old, started habitually locking doors in the house out of fear that the police would return and take his parents away.
In a press release following the approval of the consent decree on Thursday, Manning said "this settlement agreement is not only a necessary step in reforming MCSD but a necessary step in returning humanity to the black residents of Madison County."
"When the Madison County Sheriff's Department forced their way into my house and choked my disabled husband, they stole a piece of our humanity," Manning said. "I know that every American citizen has rights, but the Madison County Sheriffs treated us as though we didn't and made us feel less than American."
The lawsuit also obtained undisclosed financial settlements for several of the named plaintiffs, including Manning and her husband.
As part of the settlement, the sheriff's department did not, however, admit to engaging in "unconstitutional, illegal, or otherwise improper conduct."
In a statement released following the approval of the consent decree, Madison County Sheriff Randy Tucker said: "We successfully defended the plaintiff's attempt to make this a class action, the loss of services and to our citizens and cost of defending a second complaint was the deciding factor in this settlement. We have agreed to document more information I feel will show this administration does not target or profile any race."
During the course of the lawsuit, the ACLU uncovered a 2009 chain email, subject line "'White' Pride," that Tucker, who was elected in 2012, forwarded to several of his Madison County colleagues. The chain email contains such tropes as "How come there's no White History Month?"
The MSCD also handed over data showing that, on average, the per capita rate of police roadblocks in predominantly black census tracts in Madison County was double the rate in predominantly white census tracts. Despite making up 38 percent of the population of the county, black residents accounted for 77 percent of all arrests, 76 percent of all arrests at roadblocks, and 72 percent of all citations.
One of the other documents turned over to the ACLU and Simpson Thacher was the template case sheet for the MCSD's narcotics unit. All of the fields on the form were blank, except three that were automatically filled in: "black," "male," and "arrested."
"They really were being harassed and really were being racially profiled. No joke," says Canton, Mississippi resident Elaine Blair. "They really were doing that. I encountered [roadblocks] two times a day within four or five hours of each other, the same spot."
In 2007, Blair and her cousin started a group called Concerned Citizens of Canton that ran monthly civil rights training sessions and collected citizen complaints about the MCSD's use of pedestrian checkpoints and roadblocks. County officials ignored the group and its attempts to get public records from the MCSD.
Under the terms of the four-year consent decree, the Madison County sheriff will prohibit roadblocks or checkpoints within a quarter mile of apartment complexes in black neighborhoods. It will also conduct periodic training on unbiased law enforcement and collect detailed data, including racial demographics, on law enforcement stops and arrests. The community advisory board will also take citizen complaints about policing.
"I feel very good about taking a stand on this, because when you find yourself being mistreated, you have to just say something," Blair says. "I guess some people can say it's been a long time coming, but at least it's all out there. Now we're going to be better because of it."