DOVER — The April 20 traffic stop in Georgia lasted about 30-45 minutes. But the emotions associated with it continue to run deep.
So says Delaware State University women’s lacrosse coach Pamella Jenkins of an incident involving her team, as its players were traveling home from road games in Florida and Georgia and their charter bus was stopped by police.
Ms. Jenkins said it was her understanding that the vehicle was stopped for traveling in a left lane when only the right lane was open for buses.
DSU spokesman Carlos Holmes said Monday that officers bearing Liberty County (Georgia) Sheriff’s Office insignias entered the bus. The video showed them indicating that the passengers’ luggage would be searched, along with warning the occupants about marijuana-possession laws in Georgia.
A request for information from the sheriff’s office was not returned Monday.
On Wednesday, one of the passengers posted a 78-second YouTube video of a policeman at the front of the bus speaking to its occupants.
According to the video, the officer begins by saying, “Why I’m coming on the bus right now is to tell you all now, ... we’re going to check y’all’s luggage, OK? If there’s anything in y’all’s luggage, we’re probably going to find it, OK?”
The officer continue, explaining, “I’m not looking for a little bit of marijuana, but I’m pretty sure if you got some chaperones, (they’ll) probably ... be disappointed in you if we find any.”
The officer receives a quiet, “Yes, sir,” after asking, “You guys are on a lacrosse team, correct?”
Then, the officer cautions, “If there is something in there that is questionable, please tell me now because if we find it, guess what? We’re not going to be able to help you, OK?”
Noting where they are, he explains, “You are in the state of Georgia. Marijuana is still illegal in the state of Georgia, OK? Anything that you can put marijuana in, maybe a device where you smoke it, maybe something that you would weigh it in, like scales, anything.
“If there’s nothing, then I’m thankful. (That’ll) make my job a lot easier. We’re going to get this done, and we’ll have you guys on your way. You guys have any more questions for me?”
A barely perceptible, “No, sir,” follows.
The officer then asks a follow-up question: “Have I explained it pretty good?”
“Yes, sir” is the answer.
Before leaving the bus, the officer says, “If you give us a few minutes, then you guys will be on your way, OK?”
A passenger is then heard saying, “I’m going to call my mom,” and a occupant’s face is seen just prior to the video’s end.
Ms. Jenkins said no offenses were subsequently detected, and the bus continued home to Dover.
Situation gets attention
Now, however, the incident has drawn the public’s attention, spurred by an article, video and photos posted last week on the website of the school-run Hornet Newspaper.
Additionally, the president of DSU, Dr. Tony Allen, has sought guidance from the governor and other state officials about steps going forward.
He said the “student-athletes, coaches, and the subcontracted bus driver are all safe. I have spoken with many of them, and in the course of investigating this incident in conjunction with our General Counsel and Athletic Director.”
He added, “I have also reached out to Delaware’s Governor, Congressional delegation, Attorney General, and Black Caucus. They, like me, are incensed.”
Ms. Jenkins agreed.
“I think it’s tough to relive it,” she said Monday. “I would say the video triggers me the most, especially seeing that there was six heavily armed police officers that were there. You know, on a bus with a predominantly Black team. That’s pretty intimidating.”
As she does when her team’s on the field, the coach said she had to take the lead in a tough spot.
“I was just basically just wanting to keep calm because I know that my team was gonna take cues from me,” she said. “I just wanted to keep calm and say the least amount as possible, so that we could get back on our way to going back to Delaware.”
As it turned out, she said, “No one was charged with anything, even the bus driver.”
Ms. Jenkins said that, at one point, “one of my student-athletes asked the officer, ‘How did this go from a routine traffic stop to all of a sudden you’re going through our personal belongings?’”
When the stop was initiated, according to Coach Jenkins, “Our bus driver was asked for his license and registration. He saw that it was an African American bus driver, and then, it’s a whole team, so it definitely felt like we were targeted. It just seems so uncalled for to go through all of that, right?
“So we’re a Division I team, and I know our team has great integrity and shows great respect. And I know my student-athletes wouldn’t do that. And I said to them that we’re a Division I program. And it just felt completely out of line and a violation for them to do that.”
Upon entering the bus and speaking with the passengers, Ms. Jenkins said the policeman asked about the potential of marijuana being in the luggage, “which, when you’re racially profiling, is a narcotic that you associate with African Americans.”
There were 25 student-athletes on the bus, two coaches and a trainer, Mr. Holmes said.
As for her athletes, Ms. Jenkins said, “I just hope for my young ladies that we can find a way to move past this and know that they’re not scared in any way to either get back on the bus or the road or anything. I don’t want that fear to be there. And I want us to be able to continue to grow our program and to be successful in our future.”
The players, their coach said, “stayed poised throughout the whole thing. Even more so when they took something out of one of my players’ bags and was asking her questions about it. And, you know, even she was just very poised, straight to the point and composed. So I was very proud of every single one of them.”
Dr. Allen, governor respond
In a message to the university community, Dr. Allen said, “We have also reached out to Georgia Law Enforcement and are exploring options for recourse — legal and otherwise — available to our student-athletes, our coaches, and the University.”
Also in his message, Dr. Allen said, “The belongings of the student-athletes, including suitcases in the luggage racks beneath the bus, were searched by police and drug-sniffing dogs. Videos such as this one taken by one of the players clearly show law enforcement members attempting to intimidate our student-athletes into confessing to possession of drugs and/or drug paraphernalia.
“To be clear, nothing illegal was discovered in this search, and all of our coaches and student-athletes comported themselves with dignity throughout a trying and humiliating process.”
Through a spokesperson, Gov. John Carney released a message that read: “I have watched video of this incident — it is upsetting, concerning, and disappointing. Moments like these should be relegated to part of our country’s complicated history, but they continue to occur with sad regularity in communities across our country. It’s especially hard when it impacts our own community.
“I have been in touch with Dr. Allen and expressed that we will do everything we can to assist the University with learning more about the incident and any appropriate next steps. I’m proud of our students for handling the experience with remarkable composure, though I’m sorry they were made to go through it at all.”
A spokeswoman said Monday that Attorney General Kathy Jennings had conversed with Dr. Allen. She also spoke with Coach Jenkins, “who provided valuable information and insight into the events.”
In a statement, Ms. Jennings added, “I am incensed by the events that our Delaware State University Women’s Lacrosse team and coach endured in Georgia this past April.
“This treatment was unconscionable and completely unwarranted. I want to personally commend the outstanding young women of the DSU Women’s Lacrosse team for their valor in the face of this injustice, and my fellow Delawareans for rallying around them.”
According to Dr. Allen, “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 pointed to the Wednesday article published by The Hornet Newspaper, saying, “the piece is thoughtful and well-written, supported by one of several videos taken of the incident.”
Ms. Jenkins agreed that the article was an accurate portrayal of the events.
“It should not be lost on any of us how thin any day’s line is between customary and extraordinary, between humdrum and exceptional, between safe and victimized,” Dr. Allen said.
“That is true for us all but particularly so for communities of color and the institutions who serve them. The resultant feelings of disempowerment are always the aggressors’ object.”
Dr. Allen continued: “This past January and February during the spate of bomb threats made against HBCUs, it was made clear then that personal nobility, individual virtue, and communal excellence do not exempt us from oppressive treatment.
“In fact, it seems the opposite holds true; too many people of color in this country, our students among them, experience what W.E.B. Du Bois dubbed ‘double consciousness,’ a wasteful predicament in which people of color live doubly: in talented pursuit of their dreams and in self-conscious defense of their mental and, too often, physical safety.
“However, as I said in January, we will never be bullied into believing anything other than what we are — Americans, learners, teachers, builders — useful and honorable people ready to soar. I am proud of our student-athletes, their coaches, the athletic department leadership, and the reporters and staff of the University newspaper.
“Our mission is a critical one and is as much a part of the American story as any.”
Lawmakers weigh in
On Monday, U.S. Sens. Tom Carper and Chris Coons, and U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, all Delaware Democrats, issued a statement that read:
“The story reported in The Hornet and images captured on video by the Delaware State University women’s lacrosse team during a Georgia traffic stop are deeply disturbing.
“No one should be made to feel unsafe or humiliated by law enforcement or any entity who has sworn to protect and serve them. That’s especially true for students who have sought out HBCUs like Delaware State University with a long history of empowering communities of color that have far too often faced discrimination and other barriers to opportunity.
“We strongly support Dr. Allen’s decision to ‘go wherever the evidence leads’ him and his administration as they explore all possible options in response. Our offices stand ready to assist the Delaware State community however we can as it deals with the impact of this episode, and hope there will be a swift, just resolution.”
Also in the incident’s aftermath Monday, Delaware Legislative Black Caucus Chair Rep. Kendra Johnson issued the following statement:
“Like many who have heard about the incident involving the Delaware State University women’s lacrosse team, I am disappointed, frustrated, hurt and angry. But I’m not surprised. It’s an unfortunate reality that Black and Brown people in this country face a higher level of scrutiny from some law enforcement.
“This is a truth that many of us have experienced firsthand, something we teach our children about, and an injustice that we continue to try to address. Nevertheless, what happened to these student athletes is appalling.
“Upon learning about this situation, I reached out to DSU President Tony Allen to offer the Black Caucus’ support and to ask if there is anything we can do to assist. I also have reached out to senior law enforcement officials here to open a dialogue.
“I want to know how the searching of the team bus under these circumstances could have ever been lawful. I want to learn what legal recourse the team members, their coaches and their driver may have against this police agency and its officers. And finally, I want to be assured that college teams visiting a Delaware university would never be subjected to the same treatment these young women were.”