(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.
During the stop, sheriff’s deputies used drug-sniffing dogs to search students’ suitcases, Allen said.
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.
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.
A K-9 unit was part of the detail, and after the Delaware State bus was stopped, “an alert was given by the K-9,” prompting the search, Bowman said.
“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.”
Pamella Jenkins, head coach of Delaware State’s women’s lacrosse team, told CNN’s Jake Tapper 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.
The sheriff, however, said, “No personal items on the bus or persons were searched.”
“A K-9 sniff on the exterior of the vehicle is not a search under the Fourth Amendment … and does cause us to provide search of the vehicle,” Bowman said Tuesday. “Once aboard, the deputies informed the passengers that the search would be completed. This is the same protocol that is expected to be used no matter the race, gender, age or destination of the passenger.”
Video shows deputies on the bus
A video shared by Delaware State University shows two White deputies standing at the front of the bus and telling passengers they are going to search their luggage.
One deputy can be heard saying, “If there is anything in y’all’s luggage, we’re probably going to find it — OK. I’m not looking for a little bit of marijuana, but I’m pretty sure you guys’ chaperones are probably going to be disappointed in you if we find any.”
The officer continued: “So, if there is something in there that’s questionable, please tell me now. Because if we find it, guess what — we’re not going to be able to help you. You are in the state of Georgia; marijuana is still illegal.”
CNN has not been able to confirm what happened before the filming started or what happened after the recording stopped. CNN requested additional clips of the incident from the university and was told by the university’s director of news services, Carlos Holmes, that other video exists but the quality was poor.
The deputies involved were not identified by the sheriff during the news conference.
“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.
“More than anything, we want feedback from the passengers of the Delaware State University Lacrosse Team on what communication approaches can be considered that we simply may not be aware of,” the sheriff said.
CNN reached out to Delaware State University for comment following the news conference held by the Liberty County sheriff.
Allen 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.
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