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Justice Department launches civil rights inquiry into NY's Mount Vernon police

The investigation will examine whether officers frequently use excessive force or target Black residents for abuse, federal officials say
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Federal prosecutors opened a civil rights investigation into the Mount Vernon Police Department in New York on Friday, announcing “significant justification” in the wake of reports of excessive force and systemic targeting of Black residents for abuse.

The inquiry will be far-reaching, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in a statement.

Federal prosecutors said the reports of excessive force by officers often involved people who are handcuffed, already in custody or suspected of non-violent offenses. The Justice Department had also been made aware of allegations that officers “target Black residents for abuse and excessive force, including information suggesting that supervisors teach this targeting to their subordinates,” Clarke said.

Officials with the police department and city were not immediately reached for comment Friday. No one with the Mount Vernon Police Association, which represents sworn members of the department, responded to a request for comment.

Federal investigators have received allegations officers also routinely perform searches without legal basis, including strip searches and the department mishandles evidence, Clarke said.

Mount Vernon is north of New York City and has about 74,000 residents, according to the city’s website. Black residents account for about 66 percent of its population, according to census data.

The DOJ inquiry comes less than two weeks after U.S. Attorney Damian Williams, who represents the Southern District of New York, announced a criminal civil rights division during his remarks at his investiture.

“Police officers have tough jobs, and so many do their work honorably, lawfully, and with distinction, respecting the rights of the citizens they have sworn to protect. But when officers break the law, they violate their oath and undermine a community’s trust,” Williams said in a statement.

The investigation also comes after Westchester County D.A. Mimi Rocah called for a federal investigation in April after investigating several complaints.

“We have found disturbing allegations of patterns of inappropriate and potentially unlawful conduct by several former and current members of the MVPD,” she said at the time.

The federal investigation will be handled by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, officials said.

“We will meet with officers and command staff as well as members of the broader Mount Vernon community. We will review incident reports, body-worn camera footage, and other data and documentation collected by the department,” Clarke said.

Mount Vernon is the fourth department this year the DOJ is investigating for potential civil rights violations.

Federal authorities in April announced a probe in Kentucky into the Louisville Metro Police Department, 13 months after officers fatally shot Breonna Taylor in her apartment. That same month, officials said the Minneapolis Police Department would be investigated, less than 24 hours after a jury convicted former officer Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd.

The DOJ announced in August its investigation into the Phoenix Police Department to determine whether its officers use excessive force and treat people of color differently.