Justice Department opens federal civil rights probe into Mount Vernon Police Department

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The top federal prosecutor in Manhattan announced a federal civil rights probe into the Mount Vernon Police Department over allegations the department engages in racially discriminatory policing, among other abuses.

Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said the police department will be subject to a “pattern or practice” investigation, which allows federal officials to investigate allegations of systemic violations of civil rights.

"The investigation we are announcing today will assess whether the Mount Vernon Police Department engages in discriminatory conduct, singling out Black residents for mistreatment," he said at a press conference in Manhattan Friday afternoon.

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Investigators will also look at whether the city police engaged in a pattern or policies of unlawful or unconstitutional conduct, including excessive force, unlawful strip and body cavity searches, and falsifying evidence, he said.

Mount Vernon police
Mount Vernon police

These types of allegations have plagued the Mount Vernon police in recent years as the department has been hit with lawsuits over strip searches and faced accusations of corruption and misconduct.

“Police officers have tough jobs," Williams said. "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.”

Kristen Clarke, who helms the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said that the investigation was born of a review of publicly available information and complaints that were submitted by members of the public.

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Clarke said that the Justice Department has “received reports that officers target Black residents for abuse and excessive force, including information suggesting that supervisors teach this targeting to their subordinates.”

Williams and Clarke encouraged anyone with relevant information to the investigation to contact federal authorities at community.mvpd@usdoj.gov or 866-985-1378.

Mount Vernon mayor responds

Later in the day, Mount Vernon Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard issued a statement ahead of the city's press conference, pledging to cooperate with the federal investigation. She also stated that she and her police commissioner, Glenn Scott, had previously undertaken an internal review of the police department and instituted new policies.

Mount Vernon Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard, delivers remarks at city hall to address the federal civil rights probe by the Justice Department into the Mount Vernon police Department, Dec. 3, 2021.
Mount Vernon Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard, delivers remarks at city hall to address the federal civil rights probe by the Justice Department into the Mount Vernon police Department, Dec. 3, 2021.

She said that information was already turned over to the Westchester District Attorney's Office and the Department of Justice.

At the press conference, the mayor welcomed the probe and cited her underpaid and under-resourced department.

"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," she said. "Mount Vernon is small community ... and we don’t have some of the resources that larger departments have."

Patterson-Howard also thanked the officers who have "persevered under very difficult conditions" to perform good policing despite "being the worst paid police department in the county and the most under resourced police department in our region."

Scott said he believed much of what the federal authorities will look into have been cleaned up.

"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.

Next steps for feds

For the federal authorities' part, they will let the public know if they do not find any evidence of systemic violations, Clarke said.

"But if, on the other hand, we conclude that there is reasonable cause to believe that such violations are occurring, we will issue a report providing a comprehensive assessment of our findings, and will aim to work cooperatively with the city to reach agreement on a remedy for any violations," she said.

If violations are found to have taken place, Williams said, federal authorities typically work to reach a settlement with the police department to ensure changes to its practices. He noted that similar agreements were reached in the past with the police departments in Yonkers and Beacon.

The Justice Department could also bring a civil lawsuit to try to enforce those changes, he said.

Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke is pictured in Washington on Aug. 5, 2021. She announced on Dec. 3, 2021, that her team will investigate policing practices of the Mount Vernon Police Department.
Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke is pictured in Washington on Aug. 5, 2021. She announced on Dec. 3, 2021, that her team will investigate policing practices of the Mount Vernon Police Department.

Williams said the probe will examine the department’s policies, training and internal controls. Investigators will speak to members of the department whose perspective he called "essential," as well as members of the community.

Though a civil investigation would not target potential crimes, Williams indicated that the Justice Department would be able to pursue or refer criminal matters if they arise during the course of the probe.

Clarke said this is the Justice Department's fourth such investigation this year, with similar probes in Louisville, Minneapolis and Phoenix.

Westchester District Attorney Mimi Rocah said in a statement shortly after the announcement that she commends the Justice Department for reviewing possible civil rights violations by Mount Vernon's police department.

"Today’s announcement demonstrates that parallel parts of the justice system operate to help create a safe environment for our communities," she said.

Rocah has previously called on the Justice Department to probe Mount Vernon's adherence to civil rights laws, and her office has launched investigations into specific Mount Vernon police officers over potential criminality.

Asher Stockler is a reporter for The Journal News. You can find him on Twitter at @quasiasher or send him an email at astockler@lohud.com. Reach him securely: asher.stockler@protonmail.com.

This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Mount Vernon police subject of federal civil rights investigation

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