Federal prosecutors announced Friday that they are investigating the Mount Vernon Police Department. The probe will investigate whether the department has engaged in a practice of discriminatory policing and will review the departments’ history of use of force, handling of evidence, and strip and body cavity searches.

The announcement follows a year-long Gothamist/WNYC investigation into the troubled Westchester County city’s police department, which uncovered civilian allegations of police brutality and robberies stretching back to 2014, a police whistleblower’s recordings alleging drug planting and alliances with key drug dealers in the city, and explosive videos of strip and body cavity searches that police officers said were in violation of department rules. The allegations reported in the series resulted in the disbandment of the police department’s narcotics unit, and played a major role in the defeat of Westchester’s then incumbent District Attorney.

At the press conference, Kristen Clarke, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said the investigation followed a review of “publicly available information,” citing information on potentially unlawful strip and body-cavity searches and alleged brutality against handcuffed residents and minors.

“Under the Fourth Amendment we have the right to be free from the use of excessive force. We have the right to be free from unlawful strip searches and body cavity searches,” said Kristen Clarke, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division at the press conference. “We also have the right to be free from fabricated or falsified evidence.”

“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,” Damian Williams, United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said. “But when officers break the law, they violate their oath and undermine a community’s trust.”

This marks the fourth pattern-or-practice investigation launched this year by the Department of Justice, which has also begun delving into police misconduct allegations in Phoenix, Louisville, and Minneapolis.

The probe also comes on the heels of public calls from Westchester County District Attorney Mimi Rocah, who took office earlier this year after overcoming her predecessor in a contentious Democratic primary, to investigate the police department.

As Gothamist/WNYC’s investigations previously revealed, under Rocah’s predecessor Anthony Scarpino, the Westchester County District Attorney received troubling recordings alleging widespread corruption and brutality inside the department’s narcotics unit. Despite possessing these recordings, the District Attorney’s Office at the time continued to prosecute Mount Vernon residents accused of crimes by numerous officers flagged in those tapes without disclosing the evidence to their attorneys.

“I commend the Department of Justice and the Southern District of New York for dedicating substantial federal resources to vigorously defend the civil rights laws through a comprehensive investigation of possible violations of civil liberties by the Mount Vernon Police Department,” Rocah said in a statement.

According to federal prosecutors, the probe will review the Mount Vernon police department’s internal disciplinary process and solicit information from community groups and members of the public.

Civil rights attorneys, who have brought lawsuits against the police department, praised the announcement.

“I think it’s a great day for the Mount Vernon community and for the good cops in the Mount Vernon police department,” said Joseph Murray, an attorney who represents Murashea Bovell, the police whistleblower who shared his secret recordings of colleagues and prosecutors with Gothamist/WNYC last year. “Finally, they’re addressing these longstanding complaints about police misconduct.”

“I brought the cases of alleged wrongful conviction to the attention of the new District Attorney Mimi Rocah — whose office, unlike that of her predecessor, appeared as shocked and dismayed by what we had uncovered as I was — and filed a number of civil rights lawsuits,” said Karen Newirth, an attorney who previously worked at The Exoneration Project and Loevy & Loevy. “I could not be more pleased to know that the DOJ is taking seriously these allegations and I look forward to justice for Mount Vernon residents being served.”

Nicholas Mastrogiorgio, president of the Mount Vernon Police Association, said his members welcome and will cooperate “in any way necessary” with the federal inquiry.

“I am confident that the members of the Mount Vernon Police Department work with the utmost professionalism and treat all residents of the city of Mount Vernon fairly and equally,” he said. “I am sure that this investigation will prove just that. I just hope that the Southern District of New York and the Department of Justice deliver the positive results of this investigation with as much fanfare as they used to announce the start of it.”

A spokesperson for the City of Mount Vernon did not respond to requests for comment.

Williams said that if his office finds any pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing, they will issue a report and could file a civil lawsuit seeking a federal court order for the Mount Vernon Police Department to change its policing practices.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Three days after this story published, the City of Mount Vernon, N.Y. sent Gothamist/WNYC a written statement outlining several police-reform measures the city's mayor, Shawyn Patterson-Howard, has taken since assuming office in 2020, including an internal investigation into past allegations of abuse and corruption within the police department.

"The information obtained during the investigation was turned over to the Westchester District Attorney's office and passed on to the Department of Justice," the city's statement said. "Both the Office of the Mayor and the Police Department are cooperating fully with the DOJ’s investigation and believe that the changes instituted will demonstrate that the culture of
policing is changing for the better in Mount Vernon."

George Joseph is a reporter with the WNYC/Gothamist Public Safety Unit. You can send him tips on Facebook, Twitter @georgejoseph94, Instagram @georgejoseph81, and at gjosephwnyc@protonmail.com. His phone and encrypted Signal app number is 929-486-4865.