Del. State Univ. president ‘incensed’ over Georgia police drug search of lacrosse team bus

Listen 1:45
A view of the Delaware State University's women's lacrosse team

Delaware State University Women's Lacrosse Coach Pamella Jenkins said the "traumatic" episode of the team's bus being stopped and searched by police in Georgia haunts her. (Courtesy of Delaware State University)

Riding home on a charter bus after a three-game tour in Florida and Georgia, Delaware State University’s women’s lacrosse coach was surprised when the driver suddenly pulled off Interstate 95.

Moments later, coach Pamella Jenkins and her team and staff were perplexed when a Liberty County, Georgia, sheriff’s deputy got on the bus. Liberty County is 28 miles southwest of Savannah.

The cop told the driver that the left lane was prohibited for buses and asked him to step outside.

What happened next stunned the 30 people on the bus, however.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“We’re sitting on the bus waiting, and then one of my student athletes says, ‘They’re pulling our luggage off of the bus,’’’ Jenkins recalled in an interview Monday. “And so we all look over, and then we see a dog sniffing and going through our belongings, going through the bags as they’re coming off of the bus.”

Georgia police search the luggage of women's college lacrosse players. The officers found no drugs or paraphernalia.
Georgia police search the luggage of women’s college lacrosse players. The officers found no drugs or paraphernalia. (Courtesy of Delaware State Univ.)

Jenkins said she thought, “What is going on? What is the need for this for just a traffic stop?”

The coach said it wasn’t lost on the bus’s occupants that the deputies were white and that she and most of her team and staff are Black.

Dover-based Delaware State is one of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities. Its president, Tony Allen, is a friend of President Biden who was tapped to plan the presidential inauguration. Allen also chairs Biden’s HBCU Board of Advisers. Allen now says he’s “incensed” by what transpired on his athletic team’s bus.

Two deputies entered and announced they were going to search their luggage in the cargo bay below the bus.

They would be looking for drugs and paraphernalia, and seemed to infer that they were looking for large quantities, Jenkins said.

“If there is anything in you-all’s luggage, we’re probably gonna find it,’’ the deputy said, his words captured in this cell phone video taken by one of the players.

“I’m not looking for a little bit of marijuana, but I’m pretty sure you guys’ chaperones will probably be disappointed if we find it.”

The unidentified deputy says he knows the girls are on a lacrosse team.

“If there is something in there that is questionable, please tell me now because if we find it, guess what? We’re not gonna be able to help you. … Marijuana is still illegal in the state of Georgia.”

He also mentioned that the deputies and the dog would be looking for devices used to smoke marijuana and scales to weigh it.

He asked if the riders had any questions, but none did. “Give us a few minutes and you guys will be on your way,’’ the deputy said.

Jenkins described one exchange that was not captured on the video WHYY viewed.

“One of my student athletes asks the question, ‘How did this go from a routine traffic stop to dogs sniffing for narcotics, animals going through our things?’ And he says on these highways that they often see charter buses smuggling narcotics or people and they have to be vigilant to stop that from happening.”

Jenkins and her players then watched with incredulity as three deputies spent about 30 minutes ransacking their bags.

They pulled out some of the women’s underwear during the search, and even unwrapped a gift one girl had received on the trip from a friend in her native Georgia when they played Kennesaw State University, she said.

The students and the interior of the bus were not searched.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

In the end, the police and the dogs discovered nothing suspicious or illegal.

“They came on the bus and they said, ‘OK, ladies, We didn’t find anything. You’re free to go,’’’ Jenkins recalled. “They did not apologize.”

She said the driver wasn’t even issued a ticket.

‘There just wasn’t any just cause for the search’

In the nearly three weeks since that unsettling episode unfolded on the highway 700 miles from campus, Jenkins and her team have been seething and wondering if the intrusive search was initiated because they were racially profiled.

Jenkins said that as a Black woman, she’s never surprised when people of color are pulled over and interrogated.

“I was more scared for my players,’’ she said. “They were kind of quiet and kind of shocked that this was happening to them when all we’re trying to do is just get home after a long road trip.”

WHYY News contacted the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office on Monday and submitted a request for the incident report on the traffic stop and search.

An administrative aide who did not identify herself referred a reporter to Max Brown, the chief deputy. “We don’t have any further information. It has to be investigated,’’ the aide said, adding that the office was just learning about the stop and search. Brown has not yet responded.

In the records department, an official said Georgia law gives police three days to respond to the request for an incident report, if one is written and filed.

Last week, however, the university’s newspaper published an article about the ordeal.

The account relived “the traumatic experience’’ for Jenkins, she said. “So it’s literally been rehashing that whole experience again.”

She said the officer’s “tone was very accusatory, as if they were expecting to find something” but “there just wasn’t any just cause for the search or for them to come on and use that tone with us.”

Coach Jenkins said the "traumatic" episode haunts her.
Coach Jenkins said the “traumatic” episode haunts her. (Courtesy of Delaware State Univ.)

Team showed ‘dignity’ during ‘trying and humiliating process’

Delaware State President Allen isn’t letting the matter rest.

In a letter sent to the Delaware State community Monday, he said the videos he has watched “clearly show law enforcement members attempting to intimidate our student-athletes into confessing to possession of drugs and/or drug paraphernalia.” His letter included video of the incident.

“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.”

Allen said he’s contacted Gov. Carney’s office and lawmakers.

“They, like me, are incensed,’’ Allen wrote. “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.”

“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.”

Carney issued this statement:

“I have watched video of this incident – it is upsetting, concerning, and disappointing,’’ he said.  “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.”

Carney said he told Allen his office “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.”

Allen’s letter added that “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. 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.”

Yet Delaware State and its students and leaders will not cower, Allen said.

“We will never be bullied into believing anything other than what we are,’’ Allen wrote. “Americans, learners, teachers, builders — useful and honorable people ready to soar.”

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal