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.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.