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Justice Department Opens Civil Rights Investigation into Mount Vernon, N.Y Police Department

Mount Vernon police officers are accused of several civil rights abuses in the predominantly Black city.

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The Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into the Mount Vernon, New York police department. Joining Louisville, Phoenix, and Minneapolis, this is the fourth inquiry into a local police department to be conducted under the Biden Administration since April.

Mount Vernon police department, which has almost 200 officers, will be closely examined to determine if there is a “pattern or practice” of excessive force, mistreatment and discrimination against Black residents, falsifying evidence and unlawful strip and body cavity searches. The New York Times reports that officials announced the inquiry on Friday.

Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard, the city’s first woman mayor, said late Friday that she welcomes the inquiry. Before winning the mayoral election in 2019, her campaign included police reform efforts. The Journal News reports that Patterson-Howard said that she and police commissioner Glenn Scott already conducted an internal review of the department and created new policies.

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“We welcome the Department of Justice again coming in with their resources to help us as a community to hasten our police reform efforts here,” Patterson-Howard said, according to the Journal News. “Mount Vernon is small community ... and we don’t have some of the resources that larger departments have.”

For years, residents of the predominantly Black city have accused the department of misconduct. The department faced several lawsuits over strip searches, according to Journal News, and is the subject of numerous reports of brutality and unlawful arrests. The Times also reports that in his 2017 memoir, former special FBI agent Marc Ruskin said the city, called “Mount Vermin” by some agents, was known for a corrupt police force and government.

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The city’s municipal government will also be a part of the inquiry.

“I believe that most of the past practices have been eliminated that they are investigating and they will actually have a positive review,” Scott said, according to Journal News.

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From the Times:

The announcement on Friday followed a series of articles by the local news outlet Gothamist investigating allegations of police corruption by Mount Vernon officers based on hours of secret recordings made by a whistle-blower from 2017 to 2020.

The recordings capture officers from a since-disbanded narcotics unit describing, observing or participating in police misconduct, including framing residents for crimes and stealing their belongings. In other instances, officers outlined efforts to conspire with drug dealers, helping to hide the crack cocaine of one and allowing some suspects to roam free in exchange for help with low-level cases.

Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general who leads the Civil Rights Division, said at a news conference on Friday that an initial review of complaints about the department offered “significant justification” for a more thorough investigation.

The complaints, Ms. Clarke said, included reports that Mount Vernon officers had used excessive force against people who were handcuffed or arrested for nonviolent offenses, including minors, resulting in severe injuries in some instances.

“We’ve also received reports that officers target Black residents for abuse and excessive force,” she added, “including information suggesting that supervisors teach this targeting to their subordinates.”

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“Today’s announcement demonstrates that parallel parts of the justice system operate to help create a safe environment for our communities,” said Westchester County district attorney Miriam Rocah, according to the Times. She called for the Justice Department to investigate the department for civil rights violations back in April. Her office has investigated several individual officers accused of serious misconduct.

Damian Williams, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York said the inquiry will focus on policies, training and the department’s internal investigations, according to Journal News. If violations are found, the federal prosecutors will reach a settlement with the police department to enforce changes or file a civil lawsuit. The Justice Department will also pursue any potential crimes they may find.

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“Police officers have tough jobs,” Williams said at the news conference, according to Journal News. “Most of them do their work honorably, lawfully and with distinction, respecting the rights of the people they have sworn to protect. But when officers break the law, they violate their oath and undermine the community’s trust.”