AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Racial profiling or aggressive traffic enforcement? McIntosh County sheriff answers critics

Questions of racist deputies and their treatment of black motorists have dogged the McIntosh County sheriff's office this month after a series of Facebook messages by former officers in the agency surfaced.

Sheriff Stephen D. Jessup in a front page article in Sunday's AJC vehemently denied allegations that he is racist or his department treats the black community unfairly in the small coastal Georgia community.

“I don’t think in all my life I’ve been accused of being a racist,” Jessup said. “Of all the faults I have, and all the politics I’ve been involved in, I’ve never been accused of that.”

But several former deputies told the AJC that the sheriff has set the tone in the agency by using racist language himself. Jessup says they are lying for political reasons and the allegations are part of nasty campaign season attacks. He is up for re-election Nov. 8.

The focus on the department started in the wake of the racist Facebook messages  by two former deputies -- a story first reported by the AJC.  The deputies worked in an all-white traffic unit that aggressively patrols I-95 in the community just 80 miles north of Jacksonville.

The deputies used the N-word to refer to African Americans and talked about targeting black motorists while on patrol. Jessup said he took swift action to fire one of the deputies involved in the episode. (The other had already left the department by the time the Facebook messages surfaced, but he abruptly resigned from the Darien police department after the messages became known.) The episode drew attention from around the country.

Jessup said the traffic unit writes more than 1,000 tickets per month and he says it's activities are directed at improving road safety. Critics say the department unfairly targets black motorists and the Southern Center for Human Rights is investigating the sheriff's office and its policing tactics toward black motorists.

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About the Author

Brad Schrade is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter on the AJC’s investigative team.