Westchester District Attorney Mimi Rocah is publicly calling on the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to probe the Mount Vernon Police Department for “pervasive and persistent alleged civil rights violations” including excessive use of force, unlawful strip searches, and other misconduct.
The referral was based, in part, on police misconduct allegations revealed in a year–long Gothamist/WNYC investigation into those allegations and many others related to police corruption, Rocah said. The series, which drew on hours of secret recordings captured by a police whistleblower, resulted in the Mount Vernon Police Department’s announcement that it had disbanded a narcotics unit at the center of the accusations.
“The Westchester District Attorney’s Office is engaged in ongoing criminal investigations of certain individual MVPD police officers,” DA Rocah said. “In the course of those investigations, based largely on publicly available information, we have found disturbing allegations of patterns of inappropriate and potentially unlawful conduct by several former and current members of the MVPD. We have provided information that we gathered in this respect to DOJ.”
Rocah was elected this year, after running on a platform of reform. She unseated the incumbent District Attorney whom she accused on the campaign trail of failing to confront the corruption allegations in Mount Vernon, which Gothamist/WNYC first made public last June. Her office is conducting its own criminal investigation, she said, but a DOJ probe could focus on broader patterns and practices of civil rights violations.
“While our criminal investigations of individual officers continue, we are requesting that DOJ scrutinize the MVPD’s operations, training and policies to determine whether the MVPD is systematically violating peoples’ civil rights and, if so, to take action to address these matters,” DA Rocah continued.
Across the country from Ferguson to Baltimore, Department of Justice probes have uncovered rampant police brutality and racial bias. Earlier this month, one day after the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, newly installed U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced federal authorities would investigate the Police Department there.
In a statement, Mount Vernon’s Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard affirmed her administration’s commitment to police “transformation and accountability.”
“Our administration referred multiple cases to the District Attorney for review and welcome DA Rocah’s request that DOJ add its resources to identify and address these issues for the benefit of our community,” Patterson-Howard said.
The announcement comes on the heels of a letter DA Rocah sent to the Mount Police Department in March about strip and body cavity searches of suspects which her office found concerning. Gothamist/WNYC previously published footage of Mount Vernon police conducting such invasive searches, which prompted the department to announce the reassignment of several officers.
“My concern arises not from a single, isolated complaint, but from a number of them from 2012-20, making similar allegations of certain police officers illegally or inappropriately conducting these highly invasive searches without the high legal and/or factual predicate thresholds having been satisfied,” DA Rocah wrote at the time.
A U.S. Department of Justice spokesperson declined to comment on the Westchester DA’s public call.