By Joe Sutton, Claudia Dominguez and Aya Elamroussi, CNN
Delaware State University, a historically Black institution, said its women’s lacrosse team was racially profiled by sheriff’s deputies last month during a traffic stop in Georgia.
The team’s bus was headed north on Interstate 95 in Liberty County on April 20 following a game in Florida when it was stopped “under the pretext of a minor traffic violation,” Delaware State University President Tony Allen said in a statement. Liberty County is on Georgia’s coast, south of Savannah.
Video taken by players shows “law enforcement members attempting to intimidate our student-athletes into confessing to possession of drugs and/or drug paraphernalia,” Allen added, noting nothing illegal was discovered.
Liberty County Sheriff William Bowman said the bus was pulled over for violating a state law that requires a bus or motorcoach to operate in the two most right-hand lanes unless the bus or motor coach is preparing for a left turn or moving to or from an HOV lane, and the driver was ultimately issued a warning.
In body camera video of the traffic stop released by the sheriff’s office, deputies are seen informing the driver they pulled him over for a left lane violation.
While one deputy is running the driver’s license, another has a K-9 sniff the vehicle.
At one point the video, the deputy running the license is heard asking another deputy, “Positive on the truck?” He then says, “There’s a bunch of dang schoolgirls on the truck. Probably some weed.”
A few minutes later, deputies are seen outside of the bus putting on blue surgical-like gloves before they begin the search.
The stop happened as part of the department’s “commercial interdiction detail,” Bowman, who is Black, said Tuesday at a news conference, adding other commercial vehicles were stopped that day, including a bus where “contraband” was found.
“Before entering the motorcoach, the deputy was not aware that this school was historically Black or aware of the race of the occupants due to the height of the vehicle and tinted windows,” Bowman said Tuesday.
“We were not aware that this stop was received as racial profiling,” Bowman said. “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.”
The sheriff said Tuesday that “no personal items on the bus or persons were searched.” In a statement Wednesday, he explained, “No players were searched and the K9 never entered the vehicle to search them. 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.”
Interaction was ‘traumatic,’ team member says
Pamella Jenkins, head coach of Delaware State’s women’s lacrosse team, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Wednesday she “felt violated” for herself and her team when deputies brought up marijuana because she knows “marijuana is just not something that they take part in” as Division I athletes.
“So, to hear police say that in that accusatory tone, it made me very upset and then also helpless, because there was no way in that moment that I could keep them safe,” Jenkins said.
Saniya Craft, a freshman lacrosse player, told CNN in an interview Wednesday she and her teammates remained calm because they knew they didn’t have anything illegal.
“It was traumatic,” she said, “and we were surprised, but we just were really trying to stay steady and calm, trying not to question too much.”
“I just knew, if we were a different colored team — which is sad to say — that it wouldn’t have been presented like that, and I don’t even believe that we would have gotten searched,” she said.
Sophomore lacrosse player Sydney Anderson wrote about the encounter in the Delaware State newspaper last week.
“Everyone was confused as to why they were looking through the luggage, when there was no probable cause,” Anderson wrote.
“The team members were in shock, as they witnessed the officers rambling through their bags. They brought the K-9 dog out to sniff their luggage. The cops began tossing underwear and other feminine products, in an attempt to locate narcotics,” she said.
The deputies spent 20 minutes checking the bags and said they were doing so “in case of child trafficking or drugs,” Anderson said.
“In the moment, I felt very inferior. I feel like there nothing we could have said or done to change their actions,” Anderson told CNN’s Don Lemon Wednesday. “I do believe we were racially profiled.”
Video shows deputies going through luggage
The nearly 22-minute body camera video shows one of the deputies telling the bus passengers, “Ladies, we don’t single anybody out. I’ll explain. This is our job. This is what we do. Every day we get out here and we stop commercial vehicles. Believe it or not, the majority of the drugs and large amounts of money, trafficking children, trafficking anything up and down these interstates is what we look for.”
“Today we are not saying that it’s even happening here, but however, this is how we start an investigation,” he continued.
“If there is anything in y’all’s luggage we’re probably going to find it,” the deputy said.
He then asked the passengers to tell him if they had anything questionable and explained that any amount of marijuana is illegal in Georgia.
Deputies are then seen going through bags, searching makeup kits and other items inside of them.
Eventually, a deputy goes back on the bus and tells the passengers nothing illegal was found.
“Ladies, thank you. We’re going to get out of here. You guys enjoy the rest of your trip,” he said.
Allen, the university president, called the incident a “humiliating process” and said the university is “exploring options for recourse — legal and otherwise — available to our student-athletes, our coaches, and the University.”
“We do not intend to let this or any other incident like it pass idly by. We are prepared to go wherever the evidence leads us. We have video. We have allies. Perhaps more significantly, we have the courage of our convictions,” he said in the statement.
CNN reached out to Delaware State University for comment following the news conference held by the Liberty County sheriff.
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CNN’s Jamiel Lynch and Sharif Paget contributed to this report.