By Mark Morales, CNN
(CNN) — The Justice Department and the US Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey have opened an investigation into the Trenton Police Department and the City of Trenton that will focus on the use of excessive force and unlawful stops, searches and arrests, officials announced Tuesday.
The pattern-or-practice investigation was spurred after a thorough review of court records, statistics, media reports, body-worn camera footage and instances of what Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke called “problematic uses of force” for minor traffic violations.
“We reviewed information suggesting that officers may have unnecessarily escalated situations with Trenton residents, resulting in problematic uses of force including against people experiencing mental health crises,” Clarke said at a news conference.
“We’ve also reviewed information suggesting that officers may have routinely stopped pedestrians and vehicles to conduct warrantless searches and arrest without a sufficient legal basis. And in some cases, pedestrian and vehicle stops resulted in police department officers using force sometimes causing injuries to the individuals involved.”
US Attorney for the District of New Jersey Phillip Sellinger said they reviewed numerous reports of Trenton police officers using excessive force and violating constitutional rights.
Those instances included ones where excessive force was used on people who were complying with officers and where force was used as retaliation on bystanders who were filming interactions involving officers, Sellinger said.
“There are numerous reports that Trenton Police Department officers routinely conduct stops and searches without any justifiable reason. No warrant, no probable cause. Just stop and search, oftentimes of minority residents,” Sellinger said. “At times these problematic stops escalated into problematic arrests, in some instances, because the person being stopped simply wanted to know why.”
A police department spokesperson deferred all comments to the mayor’s office, who did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.
The investigation is the 11th pattern-or-practice investigation opened since 2021, Clarke said, highlighting success from other investigations, like Seattle’s 60% drop in use of force and in Baltimore, an independent monitor’s assessment that officers there are using force less often and when they do, it is consistent with department policy.
The investigation, which Clarke said generally takes about a year to complete, will also include a review of the police department’s policies, training, and supervision. They will also review the department’s process for logging complaints, internal investigation protocols, complaint reviews, adjudications and disciplinary decisions.
The US attorney’s office and the Justice Department will also conduct community outreach about experiences with the department – something Sellinger said he experienced firsthand at a town hall five weeks ago.
“They raised concerns about excessive force, concerns about stops and searches done for no good reason. They also put into words the impact that potentially unconstitutional police can have on the community, a lack of trust in law enforcement, as well as fear,” Sellinger said.
Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora, Trenton Police Department Director Steve Wilson and others have been told of the investigation and have pledged to cooperate, Sellinger said.
If the Justice Department determines officers used excessive force as part of a pattern, they will bring a lawsuit seeking court-ordered changes.
“These allegations are serious and credible, and our investigation will seek to establish whether these allegations are true and whether the Trenton Police Department is engaged in a pattern of practice of violations of the Constitution or federal law,” Clarke said. “The investigation will be thorough and objective.”
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