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Mount Vernon, N.Y., Police Face Federal Civil Rights Investigation

Federal prosecutors have opened a civil rights investigation into whether the Mount Vernon, N.Y., police department had engaged in a “pattern or practice of unlawful policing,” officials said on Friday.

Investigators will examine reports that Mount Vernon officers regularly use excessive force, conduct unlawful strip and body-cavity searches during arrests and falsify evidence, officials said.

The inquiry will also focus on whether officers have targeted Black residents in Mount Vernon — a New York City suburb of about 66,000 people in Westchester County just north of the Bronx — for mistreatment, officials said. About 60 percent of Mount Vernon residents are Black.

“Police officers have tough jobs,” Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, said in announcing the investigation. “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.”

Mr. Williams, who took over as the top federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York last month, urged Mount Vernon residents to report any information they might have about police misconduct to his office.

The investigation, which will be conducted by Southern District prosecutors and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, is the fourth such inquiry the Biden administration has opened since April. The others involve police departments in three larger cities: Louisville, Minneapolis and Phoenix.

The Mount Vernon investigation began after an extensive review of publicly available information and will encompass the police department’s policies, training practices and internal investigations, officials said.

Mount Vernon’s municipal government will also be scrutinized as part of the investigation, officials said. The police department, the office of Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard and the City Council president and did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday.

Nicholas Mastrogiorgio, the president of Mount Vernon’s police union, said in a statement that his members would “cooperate in any way necessary” with the investigation, and that he was confident officers treat all residents “fairly and equally.”

“I am sure that this investigation will prove just that,” he said, adding that he hoped officials “deliver the positive results of this investigation with as much fanfare as they used to announce the start of it.”

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.”

Federal investigations like the one involving the Mount Vernon department are often the precursors to court-approved settlements between the Justice Department and local governments to create a plan for operational changes, though some advocates for police reform say such agreements often fail to sufficiently address underlying problems.

The Justice Department has reached similar agreements in recent years with police departments in two other New York cities: Yonkers, in 2016, and Beacon, in 2010.

A public report detailing investigators’ findings from the Mount Vernon inquiry will be issued if they determine that misconduct took place, officials said.

In April, the Westchester County district attorney, Miriam E. Rocah, urged the Justice Department to investigate into the Mount Vernon police for “pervasive and persistent alleged civil rights violations.”

Ms. Rocah said at the time that her office had begun criminal investigations into individual officers, but that the department’s operations, training practices and policies needed to be examined separately to determine whether the police were “systematically violating peoples’ civil rights.”

A month earlier, Ms. Rocah had sent a letter to Glenn Scott, the police commissioner, expressing “serious concern” that some officers may have been performing illegal searches as a “matter of routine procedure.” She said her office had received a number of complaints from 2012 and 2020 about such behavior.

Ms. Rocah said in a statement on Friday that she commended the federal effort to “vigorously defend the civil rights laws through a comprehensive investigation.”

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

The Mount Vernon department, which has roughly 200 officers, has long been the subject of criticism. Decades ago, officers in the city faced scrutiny over reports of problems similar to those outlined by federal prosecutors on Friday, including arrests made without probable cause and searches conducted illegally.

The city government and police department “were so notoriously corrupt” that some at the F.B.I. “referred to the town as Mount Vermin,” Marc Ruskin, a retired special agent with the bureau, wrote in a 2017 memoir.

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