HINESVILLE, Ga. (WSAV) – An April 20 traffic stop on I-95 in Liberty County is gaining national attention.
Delaware State University’s women’s lacrosse team was heading home from a game in Florida when deputies pulled over their bus.
Liberty County Sheriff William Bowman said the bus was traveling in the lefthand lane on the interstate illegally. He said his deputies had been working on the interstate all morning when they pulled the bus over, and the on-site K9 detected something in a compartment under the bus.
But the team, mostly comprised of African Americans, felt the situation was racially motivated. Delaware State’s president said law enforcement attempted to intimidate the student-athletes.
Meanwhile, Delaware’s attorney general is calling on the federal government to investigate the incident.
Bowman held a press conference Tuesday to discuss the traffic stop but left without taking questions from the media. But he sat down for an interview Wednesday morning to share his thoughts on the national spotlight being put on Liberty County.
Was it a routine traffic stop?
The sheriff said a four-person unit, including a K9, had been working the interstate all morning.
“At that point, they saw a vehicle — white bus, with dark tinted windows — traveling on I-95 north in the left-hand lane which is a clear violation of Georgia state law,” Bowman said.
“There was no markings on the vehicle indicating who was on the vehicle or what was going on with the vehicle,” he added.
Why did it escalate to a drug search?
Bowman said the K9 hit on the front part of the vehicle in an under-the-bus compartment.
“Which is nothing unusual,” he said. “If a dog hits on a vehicle, then we’ll search it. That’s common practice throughout the United States.”
Nothing was found in the search, something the sheriff said is not unusual.
“Sometimes it happens,” Bowman said, adding, “There’s no definite timeline how long the odor will stay in the air. But the dog will catch that.”
“Not saying something was there then, but it could’ve been there previously,” he added.
Did your deputies do anything wrong?
“No. But we could’ve done things a lot better. And we would like to get more feedback from the university and talk to the students,” Bowman said.
“There is a lot of things going on in our country that a lot of people consider to be racial, but here in Liberty County, that is something we do not practice. I do not allow it and I will not let it happen,” he said.
Why has there been such an uproar?
“My humble opinion is that the things that have been happening throughout our country, through different states, has the law enforcement community now in a bad light,” the sheriff replied.
“And that’s one of the reasons why I ran for sheriff so I can try to help turn that around.
“It’s tough on both sides. It shouldn’t be an us against them. That is some of the most ridiculous thing that we could do as a nation. We should all be working together.
“Like I said, I served 20 years in the United States Army, I wouldn’t care who was in that fox hole with me as long as they had my back. And that’s where we need to get our country right now in that mode where it’s not us against you.
“We’re here to help you. When you dial 911, we’re gonna show up. We’re gonna be there. It’s tough for men and women to wear that uniform every day not knowing if they’re gonna come home at night. So I understand both sides. I know the sensitivity levels of both.”
There’s been some confusion about your comment on the bus being searched. Can you clarify?
“I misspoke. None of the people on the bus were checked,” the sheriff said. “The dog didn’t go on the bus.”
He said the search was conducted outside of the bus, adding, “that’s what made the search legal.”
Was the search customary?
“If the dog alerts on a specific compartment, then the officers can search anything inside that compartment. So they picked a few bags off the bus and they checked them,” said Bowman.
“The bags didn’t have much in them. They pretty much checked the bags just like TSA. They did it with care, they did it with compassion, and they put it back together and put it back on the bus. I didn’t see anything on that video that could show that they had malicious intent.”
Some have questioned the motivation behind searching a graduation gift. Can you explain?
“Well, I cannot think about what the deputy was thinking at that time. But my initial — when I looked at it, I didn’t know exactly what it was either,” said the sheriff.
“And the deputy asked the young lady, from the body cam, did she know what it was, and all she could say, no, she didn’t know what it was, it was a gift from her aunt. And it was wrapped in brown paper.”
The sheriff said he spoke with the deputy about the box.
“But he had the same thing. His thoughts were he didn’t know what it was and he was going to identify exactly what was in it.”
Keisha Lance Bottoms, former mayor of Atlanta, tweeted: “I hope that [Gov. Brian Kemp] and [Attorney General Chris Carr] will devote the same amount of time and resources into investigating this as they did the 2020 election.” What’s your response?
“I can’t speak on what Mrs. Bottoms was trying to say. I’m sure the governor has trust in me that I will do the right thing and the people of this county know I will do the right thing. And I know I will do the right thing.
“I will not tolerate any misbehavior, mistreatment of any citizen that come through our state, or live in our state and especially live in our community. There will be no, no, definite no, bias policing. We do everything the right way.
“I’ve been doing this for all my life, I’ve been serving our country, our state, and now, my community, and I will continue to do that to the best of my ability and make sure I do everything the right way.
“Like I said, it was an unfortunate incident that happened. My heart goes out to those girls and the college and whatever I can do to make things better for them, our nation, our county, I will do. And I just hope that politics don’t ruin something that we’re trying to build here in Liberty County, and thats to treat everybody fair and just.”
What would you tell to the other politicians weighing in on the traffic stop?
“I would tell them — believe in the process. Believe that everyone who wears a uniform is not bad. Believe that our country is in a place that we need to start coming together rather than separate.
“I believe that if we spend more time on trying to do things the right way and keep everybody safe and do the things to protect our nation, then I think we’ll have a better place.
“Communication is the key for everything and I believe that if our leaders would come together,r if they want to have a conversation — and that’s the thing we need to have, more conversations. Because we’re too quick to judge rather than wait for the facts to come.”
How do you withstand this national conversation being had?
“Well, I stand on my faith. I stand on my faith and I stand on my truth. I know who I am, I know what I stand for and I know what it means. I’ve served this country, like I said before, and I’m going to continue to keep serving as long as the good Lord keeps me in this position,” the sheriff said.
“My heart, like I said, goes out to everybody that’s involved in this. I have kids, I have a wife, I have a family, I understand. And I’ve been an officer. I’ve sat in that seat, I’ve sat in that car. So I know what it’s like to be out there.
“It’s a lonely job being an officer. It is also tough, demanding and you have to have a lot of compassion as a police officer and a lot of leeway to give. So I understand that and I appreciate this position that I’m in.”
What, if any, action is being taken?
“We’ll definitely be taking more sensitivity classes and getting out, doing more community policing programs,” Bowman said.
“We’re still going through the videos and doing our investigation. We’re going to check with our legal team to see what we need to do better,” he added.
“This is not something that I’m going to brush off the table or hide. I’m going to be at the forefront. And if we can do things better, that’s what I want to do.”
There have been calls for an apology, for the deputies involved to be fired and for action to be taken against the county. What’s your response?
“What we had to do was right and it’s still under legal — there’s still some stuff I can’t talk about,” the sheriff responded. “Like I said, just look at the video, you’ll get more clarification about what actually happened.”
Why did you feel the need to release the bodycam video so quickly?
“I saw that things were getting a little bit out of control and I felt that the more we put out there to try to stop some of these, everybody with their own opinion, forming their own opinion.
“There’s some you’re never going to stop. You’re never going to convince them something was right, something was wrong or something was indifferent. But what we can do is communicate with each other and try to make the situation better and try to help us improve on our policies and procedures.”
In the future, what should the public expect from your deputies during traffic stops?
“Know that they’re going to be treated fair. They should know that the deputy is going to do everything that the law requires them to do and they’re not going to go above what the law requires them to do because they know there’s going to be circumstances and consequences they going to have to suffer.
“That’s why we have body cams, that’s why we want to make sure we do everything right, so the public can see it.
“We’re not going to hide behind the wall, as some people would say, we’re going to make sure we’re out front and we’re going to make sure we stay ahead of the story before someone else makes their own story.”
There was a comment made by one of the deputies about the likelihood of there being some weed on the bus. Why do you think that comment was made?
“Well, I think that that is a typical recreational drug that is commonly used by most people in America. So that’s probably what the deputy was referring to not implying that the girls might have had it,” Bowman said.
“But the dog had already alerted on the vehicle on the outside, so that’s where that came from.”
Was it a racially motivated stop?
“I believe that it was not a racially motivated stop,” he said, “because when you’re out there running traffic, you don’t know who you’re stopping.
“That is the most scariest thing for an officer is a traffic stop because you don’t know who you have or what’s going on so that with being a white bus with dark tinted windows that sits higher than what you could normally see and you didn’t know who was in it, who was driving, because you can’t see inside the bus.
“So just saying something was racially motivated, I feel, personally, that it wasn’t. It was just a misfortunate thing that this occurred.
“Like I said, my heart goes out to the girls, the university. Like I said, we need to have more dialogue and I feel that if we communicate more with each other and we can try to help change our policies and regulations and then see how they felt about it. And I think we’ll get past this and hopefully, we can change some of the thought process of America.”
The sheriff said he spoke with Delaware State’s president on Tuesday. Bowman hopes to have a conversation with the lacrosse team and coach about the incident.
He said the incident will be investigated thoroughly to ensure policy was followed and added that his office will be considering updating policies as well.