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'I don't know what would have happened if I had said something': Hibbler recounts terrifying traffic stop

 

 

Joshua Hibbler, 20, spent 13 minutes on Aug. 18 enduring a traffic stop in Columbus where he says he was harassed and

Joshua Hibbler, 20, spent 13 minutes on Aug. 18 enduring a traffic stop in Columbus where he says he was harassed and "forced to lie." He believes his skin color and long dreadlocks may have made him a target for the ordeal.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

In this 2015 Dispatch file photo, Columbus High School senior Joshua Hibbler poses for a picture with members of his family after signing a National Letter of Intent to play football at East Mississippi Community College. Joining him are: Emma Turner, Patricia Turner, Marty Turner, Columbus High football coach Randal Montgomery and Vondurell Hibbler.

 

 

Zack Plair

 

 

Joshua Hibbler saw the blue lights flash behind him on Aug. 18 and immediately pulled over to the side of the road. 

 

He was driving his girlfriend's Chevrolet Camaro -- admittedly, a little too fast in a 30-mph zone -- down Airline Road as he approached the intersection at Eastwood Drive. The 20-year-old had been pulled over by police once before, two years ago for a bad headlight, and he knew the drill: Have his driver's license, the vehicle's registration and proof of insurance ready to show the officer when he walked up; and be polite. 

 

Then he met Columbus police officer Keith Dowd, and for the next 13 minutes, Hibbler said he had to stay "calm, cool and relaxed." The traffic stop escalated, he said, to a point where he was simply trying to survive. 

 

Dowd, a 48-year-old patrolman who had begun working with CPD about three weeks before the stop, bombarded Hibbler with insults and accusations of lying and drug use. Dowd twice told Hibbler he was driving "like an idiot," threatened to arrest him and impound the car, and pressed him into saying he smoked marijuana. The officer then asked repeatedly if there was "weed in the car," and said he could tell Hibbler used marijuana because of the "coloration" of his tongue.  

 

 

 

'Empty a magazine' 

 

Hibbler said he was nervous, sweating and his mind was racing. He couldn't believe what was happening. He remained polite, but kept moving his hands off the steering wheel as he answered the officer's questions. Dowd, not liking that, warned he could "empty a magazine" from his service weapon into the car if Hibbler didn't keep his hands still. 

 

"That's when I got nervous," Hibbler told The Dispatch Wednesday. "... I got to thinking about all those situations of police brutality (around the country), and I thought, 'No, I don't want to be another one of them.' I don't know what would've happened if I had said something (non-compliant)." 

 

Body camera footage The Dispatch obtained via an Open Records Act request shows the entire incident, including Dowd telling Hibbler falsehoods, such as he "only had a week" to change the address on his driver's license after a move, a canine unit was on the way and that Dowd's testimony with a judge would carry so much weight that "pretty much, you're guilty." 

 

It also shows Dowd eventually leaving Hibbler with a warning -- not a ticket or an arrest. No search of the car. No evidence of drugs. Though Dowd claimed Hibbler was driving "twice the speed limit," city officials confirmed his police unit doesn't even have radar. 

 

"He thought he was going to find something," Hibbler recalled. "He was constantly asking me the same questions over and over. ... He wanted me to talk back. He wanted me to be aggressive. He wanted me to step out of my character." 

 

 

 

A clean record 

 

Hibbler has a job, an education, a girlfriend and goals. He has a clean record, he said. In fact, during the traffic stop, the dispatcher reports back to Dowd that Hibbler's license came back "all clear." 

 

He holds an associate's degree in physical therapy from East Mississippi Community College with aspirations of transferring to a four-year university in January to earn a bachelor's degree.  

 

If he can't find his way back to a football field -- he played defensive back for EMCC for two years -- he'll gladly settle for a career as an athletic trainer. In the meantime, he lives with his mom in Columbus and works for Food Giant. 

 

For all of the tools and prospects Hibbler may have, he sports two other things he firmly believes made him a target for Dowd: Black skin and long dreadlocks. 

 

Those things, combined with the vehicle Hibbler was driving -- one Dowd commented was a "$30,000 car" -- must have triggered the officer's anger, Hibbler said. 

 

"I guess he just saw a young black male, with the hair, driving a nice car," he said. "And then he named the price of the car. Well, my mom has a BMW. What if I had been driving that? 

 

"Some cops, when they look at blacks, they look at us like we're just some type of animal or something, like we're outrageous or about to snap or something. It's just a stereotype," he later added. "... It ain't fair at all." 

 

When the nightmarish stop finally ended, and the thoroughly warned Hibbler finally made it home, he said his face and shirt were still drenched with sweat as he told his mom and aunt what happened. From there, Hibbler's uncle, former Ward 4 Columbus councilman Marty Turner, contacted Police Chief Oscar Lewis. 

 

Turner said Lewis assured him something would be done about the situation. Hibbler, in response, did not immediately file a formal complaint with CPD against the officer. 

 

"We thought it was handled," Turner said. 

 

 

 

A delayed response 

 

Dowd remained on active duty until Wednesday, when Mayor Robert Smith issued Lewis a directive to place the officer on administrative leave, with pay, pending a city council ruling next week on further disciplinary action. 

 

Initially, Lewis only issued Dowd a written reprimand, and he continued his normal rotations for another three weeks after the incident, completing his most recent shift on Monday. 

 

A source with direct knowledge of the situation, who did not want to be named, said Lewis ordered Dowd to complete online courses to improve his communication skills. One of those classes, the source said, was called "verbal Judo." 

 

"What are classes?" Hibbler said. "A person like that shouldn't be on the streets or on the police force at all. It was just plain out harassment. 

 

"Not all cops are bad cops, but there are a whole lot of cops just like him nationwide," he added. "Cops like that, there's just something personal going on with them. It's something coming from their heart, basically. All that he said was coming from his heart. That ain't normal." 

 

 

 

Investigation reopened 

 

Turner kept pressing, contacting Smith last week. After the mayor watched the body camera footage, he provided city councilmen with copies and reopened the investigation, calling the incident a "misuse" of police power. City Attorney Jeff Turnage said he also is looking into whether Dowd's behavior on the stop constitutes racial profiling. 

 

By Tuesday, The Dispatch released its requested copy of the footage, bringing it public exposure. Other media outlets -- including some outside Mississippi -- followed suit on Wednesday. 

 

Hibbler said he and his mom saw the video for the first time Tuesday night, noting his mom's reaction was "not good." He filed a formal complaint with CPD the next day, saying he was harassed and "forced to lie" about smoking marijuana. 

 

By that time, Smith had also learned of least two other instances, prior to Aug. 18, when Dowd "exhibited similar behavior" on traffic stops since coming to CPD. 

 

Dowd, who worked for Jackson Police Department from 2002-08 and most recently with the University of Mississippi Medical Center police force, had also received harassment complaints at previous jobs, according to media reports. In an instance in 2006, JPD suspended Dowd for 15 days after he handcuffed a videographer for the Jackson-based WAPT news station to keep her from capturing footage of a fatal wreck scene involving another officer, a source with station confirmed. 

 

The council, mayor and Lewis will meet in executive session Tuesday evening to discuss Dowd's fate. Hibbler wants to see the officer terminated, but whatever the result, he said he is finally "comfortable" with how the situation is being handled. 

 

 

 

Remembering his training 

 

Throughout the entire stop, Turner said the video shows Hibbler doing exactly what he was taught. 

 

He answered questions with "yes sir" and "no sir." He kept his hands visible. He kept his cool. 

 

"Get home. That's the most important thing," Turner said. "Tell us (his family), and we'll fight with you. You'll have more help with us with you than by yourself. We understand you're smart, but come tell us how smart you are, and we'll do the rest of it." 

 

Hibbler is more convinced than ever that training is useful, even if it did hurt his pride to endure it. 

 

"For anybody who gets in a situation like this, it's going to be a hard thing to do, but just comply," he said. "I learned that from watching the (body camera) video. Just comply for your life." 

 

Hibbler also doesn't want to look at all officers as if they are Dowd. If ever again in a situation where he is dealing with police, he said he will remain cautiously optimistic. 

 

"I'm just gonna act normal and hope everything goes smoothly, like it should," he said. "But I ain't gonna forget."

 

Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.

 

 

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