UPDATED FOR CLARIFICATION 5/11/2022
We have received numerous calls and questions regarding this statement. The below responses address several concerns given at this time.
What was the probable cause? The probable cause was the open-air alert. The K9 was already on the scene and used only because of the type of detail being conducted that day. When there was an alert, there was probable cause to conduct the search.
Why did you say no personal belongings were searched? There was misinformation that the individuals were searched. 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. I saw the students’ video clips so there was no need for me to lie about whether anything was searched. My words about personal belongings need to be clarified.
Why were they initially stopped? The deputies initiated a traffic stop for the motorcoach vehicle traveling in violation of O.C.G.A. 40-6-53 (2010). This was part of an interdiction detail on the interstate. On that day, K9 was available as part of the search regardless of the passengers. In the full body cam footage, the deputy explains the process.
Why was a dog called out? Due to the nature of the detail, a K9 was already part of the stop.
Why did they make a player open a gift package? It was an unidentified package wrapped in brown packaging. She didn’t know the contents, so the deputies checked it. The full body cam footage includes the deputy explaining that.
What will happen next? 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. In the meantime, this stop is being formally reviewed to ensure there were no policy violations and legally reviewed to ensure no applicable law was followed. We will also use feedback to reassess our training standards as needed. This is how true policing is done and this is what the department stands for under my leadership.
May 10, 2022
This is an official response to a traffic stop involving the Delaware State University Lacrosse Team that occurred in Liberty County on April 20, 2022. At this time, our staff will not take questions as we continue to collect all information and share our findings at a later date.
My name is William Bowman and I am the sheriff of Liberty County Georgia. Since May 9, I have taken calls, received messages, and read comments concerning a traffic stop within our county.
After a preliminary review and discussion with the deputies. I will address questions and public concern about the safety of the women that were passengers on the motorcoach.
On April 20, 2022, the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office initiated a traffic stop for a motorcoach vehicle traveling Northbound on I-95 in violation of O.C.G.A. 40-6-53 (2010). This was part of a commercial interdiction detail on the interstate. There were several other commercial vehicles that stopped that morning, including another bus where contraband was located.
Due to the nature of the detail, a K9 was part of the stop and an alert was given by the K9. 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. A canine sniff of the exterior of a vehicle is not a search under the Fourth Amendment and does provide cause to search the vehicle.
Once aboard, the deputies informed the passengers that a 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 passengers. No personal items on the bus or any person were searched.
As part of our training, deputies are instructed to speak to individuals with respect and to explain the next steps. We realize that in this current environment, even a traffic stop can be alarming to citizens, especially African Americans. It’s why we make an effort to have a diverse department and to hire people who believe in community policing with respect for all individuals.
We are happy that nothing was found, and the passengers made it home safely. The driver was issued a warning about the Georgia state law that requires a bus or motorcoach to operate in the two most right-hand lanes, except when the bus or motor coach is preparing for a left turn or moving to or from an HOV lane.
At the time, or even in the weeks following, we were not aware that this stop was received as racial profiling. 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.
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. This is how true policing is done and this is what the department stands for under my leadership.
As a veteran, former Georgia State Trooper, and sheriff of this department, I do not exercise racial profiling, allow racial profiling, or encourage racial profiling. From what I have gathered, I believe that the stop was legal but I also understand my duty to help the public understand law enforcement while seeking ways to improve services.
You can visit www.LibertySO.Org and use the feedback link to share your solutions. In the meantime, this stop is now being formally reviewed to ensure there were no policy violations and applicable law was followed. We will also use your feedback to reassess our training standards as needed.
I encourage dialogue about solutions to better serve locals and travelers while honoring our duty to enforce laws.
That is the only comment I have until our findings are available. Thank you for your time.
Public Statement Regarding Memorandum of Agreement Between the United States Department of Justice and the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office
I want to thank the Department of Justice for its assistance in addressing the public allegations of “racial profiling” made in connection with the April 20, 2022 traffic stop involving the Delaware State University Women’s Lacrosse Team. As the first black Sheriff of Liberty County, I take these allegations very seriously and very personally.
Thankfully, and as discussed in a forthcoming internal investigative report, I am confident that race in no way motivated or influenced the traffic stop or other investigatory activities of April 20, 2022, and that these actions were otherwise entirely legal. Rather, in my opinion, the central issue (and principal tension) presented by this case is the appropriateness of coordinating drug interdiction efforts with routine traffic stops, especially those that are canine supported.
I understand the indignation and unease (if not fear in some cases) that any law-abiding person, regardless of their race, can feel from being subjected to an investigation unrelated to their traffic violation, such as having their vehicle’s exterior sniffed by a drug dog. This is especially true for black Americans, who have historically been disproportionately impacted by these practices, and, in many cases, unlawfully discriminated against and mistreated by law enforcement because of their race.
I am also mindful that drug interdiction activities such as the ones practiced during the traffic stop involving the Delaware State University Women’s Lacrosse Team have long been supported and practiced by a multitude of federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. In particular, and as part of my office’s interstate interdiction efforts, it is common for available canine units to respond to traffic stops, especially those involving trucks, buses, and other common carriers. In these situations, and if a canine unit is available, an open-air sniff is customarily conducted to the extent it can be accomplished without prolonging the traffic stop. This is done, in part, to address the reported use of these large vehicles for the illegal transportation of drugs and other contraband along the interstate corridors, sometimes without the knowledge of drivers or passengers.
The legal underpinnings of these practices have long been sanctioned by federal and state courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. More importantly, I know from personal experience that drug interdiction efforts can make communities safter. However, I also understand that these efforts must be accomplished in a way that the public can appreciate and support. If not, these otherwise legal and well-intentioned practices can erode trust between law enforcement and the communities that they serve. This must be avoided at all costs. It is for this reason that my office has fully cooperated with the Department of Justice in this matter. By our Memorandum of Agreement, I intend to reaffirm my commitment to fair and impartial law enforcement practices whereby all persons are treated with dignity and respect. More specifically, I have pledged to continue my ongoing efforts to modernize the operations of the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office in regard to these matters. By working with the Department of Justice, I hope that our common goals can be effectively pursued with even greater resources and urgency.
Perhaps more than anything, I want the residents of Liberty County, and particularly the members of our minority communities, to know that the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office will do everything it can to be responsive, transparent, and accountable to the public, who we serve. In the coming months, my office will engage in a further review of its drug interdiction practices and will consider how they may be improved. I look forward to your feedback and support in these efforts.
Sheriff Will Bowman
May 15, 2023