Ga. deputy fired for racist Facebook posts, targeting black motorists

A white Georgia sheriff’s deputy has been terminated and another white officer abruptly resigned following an internal affairs investigation that uncovered racist and sexist messages they sent each other on Facebook, including one that described what appeared to be an effort to target black motorists.

The two officers — both former McIntosh County sheriff’s deputies — served on the department’s special traffic unit that patrols I-95 in South Georgia. The two officers sent offensive jokes back and forth through the Facebook’s messaging service and used texting shorthand “lol” to indicate laughter.

One joke referred to “colored people” and another used the word “n—— ,” according to records reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Another showed an image of Martin Luther King Jr. and denigrated his most famous speech.

“I have a dream. That one day my people will not act like animals,” posted Brant Gaither, the McIntosh deputy who was terminated July 25.

“Lol. That’ll never happen,” responded Jeremy Owens, a police officer in Darien, the county seat, who resigned the day after Gaither was fired. Owens previously worked in the sheriff’s office.

And in an apparent reference to their policing of the highways, Owens said: “It’s supposed to rain tomorrow. Might not get too many niggs.”

“I hope we get a few but (expletive) if we don’t,” Gaither replied.

The posts have drawn the attention of the Southern Center for Human Rights, which dispatched a lawyer to the county last week.

The center’s staff has been interviewing people in the county and is seeking information from witnesses who may have had interactions with deputies or information about the department’s policing practices. Sarah Geraghty, the center’s managing attorney for impact litigation, said the non-profit law firm is preparing a formal request for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate.

“This case goes deeper than two officers caught using racist language on their personal social media pages,” Geraghty said. “The messages reference an explicit intent by these law enforcement officials to ‘get’ black motorists. Our investigation to date suggests that this may be the tip of the iceberg.”

The disclosures in sparsely populated McIntosh, a county of about 14,000 residents on the Georgia coast, follow two other high profile allegations of racism in Georgia that have recently made news. A Forsysth County elementary school teacher’s aide was fired Monday after posting messages on Facebook that described first lady Michelle Obama as a gorilla. A Douglas County commissioner apologized last month after a tape of him surfaced making disparaging comments about black leaders and their fitness for office.

In McIntosh, the racist posts were discovered in July when a deputy was issued Owens’ old computer containing access to his Facebook account, according to Sheriff Stephen D. Jessup.

Jessup said the posts were deeply offensive and made him “want to throw up.”

“There was never any question of what I needed to do and I did it,” Jessup said. “I do not tolerate that in my department.”

Jessup said the local solicitor has notified him that some of the cases involving the officers may be dismissed and he supports the decision. He said he treats everyone in the community fairly and has no knowledge of his department targeting black motorists.

“There better not be and me find out about it,” Jessup said. “I wouldn’t tolerate it. If I found out about it I would fire them and prosecute them.”

Both Owens and Gaither declined to comment when contacted by phone.

Officer: ‘It was just a joke’

Records show Gaither was terminated for violating the department’s policies around immoral conduct and behavior unbecoming a deputy. He and Owens had worked together until December when Owens left to join the Darien police department. Both men completed two hours of diversity training last October, according to state records.

One of the exchanges made light of domestic violence against women, and another made an offensive joke about a black pregnancy test and fried chicken.

“The content was highly racist, misogynist, and offensive toward a fellow deputy,” according to Chief Deputy George A. Trexler’s memo to Gaither terminating his employment.

When he learned that Jessup was firing him, Gaither said: “It was just a joke, we all do it” but acknowledged it was a “stupid mistake,” according to Trexler’s memo. Trexler said when investigators pressed Gaither about his suggestion that others in the sheriff’s agency made these types of jokes or comments, he couldn’t provide any credible information.

“There is no joke about something like that. Period,” Sheriff Jessup said. “It’s total racism.”

Sheriff faces re-election

About a third of the population in McIntosh County, which sits along the Georgia coast between Savannah and Brunswick, is African American. It has a long history of oppression of black citizens and was the setting of a 1991 non-fiction book, “Praying for Sheetrock,” by Atlanta author Melissa Fay Greene.

Greene tells the story of how the civil rights movement seemed to bypass the isolated county, ruled by a notorious white sheriff well into the 1970s. The police shooting of an unarmed black man inspired a local black activist, Thurston Alston, to challenge the sheriff and bring change to the county, Greene writes.

The allegations come as Jessup is facing re-election next month. Jessup, a former county commissioner, is facing a challenge from the former sheriff, Charles Jones, an African-American, who he defeated in 2008.

Jessup said he has shown the Facebook posts to his staff and has not tried to hide it from residents.

“They are my people,” Jessup said. “I’m there to protect and to serve. I’m there to represent all of them. I treat them all the same, everybody.”

Next Up in Local

Temps in 50s expected; ‘we have earned it’
Temps in 50s expected; ‘we have earned it’

Today:  Sunshine, clouds. High: 58 Tonight: Clear. Low: 35 Tomorrow: Mostly sunny. High: 63 There’s no more talk of arctic blasts, subfreezing temps or black ice, at least for this weekend. “It is going to be an outstanding weekend after that cold weather we’ve seen this week,” Channel 2 Action News meteorologist Brian...
A winter for Atlanta’s record books — and it’s only January

When metro Atlanta was blanketed with snow in early December, it made for a fun three-day weekend. A month later, when Savannah received more snow than it had in three decades, it was treated as a novelty. But novelty gave way to nuisance this week when the region was paralyzed by a little more than two inches of snow. Atlantans have had enough of...
1.3 million gallon sewage spill in DeKalb took 2 weeks to contain
1.3 million gallon sewage spill in DeKalb took 2 weeks to contain

Over the course of two weeks, 1.3 million gallons of sewage flowed into Shoal Creek at Glenwood Hills Park in Decatur. A broken 8-inch pipe at the creek crossing was first observed on Jan. 4, according to a report from the county. The sewage wasn’t contained until Friday after the berm surrounding the pipe was built up. A county spokesman did...
Police: Man who shot neighbor, ran from officers kills himself
Police: Man who shot neighbor, ran from officers kills himself

A SWAT situation in Gwinnett County ended early Saturday when a man fatally shot himself, police said. The situation began shortly after midnight when police responded to a person-shot call in the 6000 block of Glenbrook Drive, officer Jacob Albright said in a news release. About 7:15 a.m., the man who allegedly shot a neighbor was seen outside his...
College student dies after on-campus shooting at Wake Forest
College student dies after on-campus shooting at Wake Forest

A 21-year-old student from Winston-Salem State University was shot and killed early Saturday after a fight broke out during a party at Wake Forest University, police said. The shooting occurred around 1 a.m., WXII reported. It took place on campus during a Delta Sigma Theta sorority party at The Barn, police said. Najee Ali Baker, 21, was...
More Stories