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US Department of Justice launches civil rights investigation following reports of excessive use of force by Trenton police

TRENTON, NJ – The U.S. Department of Justice has launched a federal investigation into civil rights violations in New Jersey's capital city and the use of force, stops, searches and arrests by police there.

The “pattern or practice investigation” is designed to determine whether Trenton police have systematically violated federal law or the Constitution. It will include a comprehensive review of the department's policies, training, oversight, internal investigation protocols, disciplinary decisions and other records regarding complaints, the Justice Department said in a statement Tuesday.

“Unfortunately, we have reviewed numerous reports that Trenton police officers may have used excessive force and stopped, searched and arrested individuals without probable cause, in violation of individuals' constitutional rights,” U.S. Attorney Philip R. Sellinger said Tuesday. “Today's announcement reflects our office's commitment to ensuring effective, constitutional policing in Trenton and throughout New Jersey.”

The golden dome of the New Jersey Statehouse towers over Trenton.

The golden dome of the New Jersey Statehouse towers over Trenton.

In a joint statement, city and state police unions responded to the investigation, saying they “hope this investigation will also shed light on the urgent need for additional resources and support for our officers.”

“On a personal level, the Trenton Police Department has done an impossible job for a decade with a skeleton crew that is extraordinarily dedicated to the city, without a contract and without proper working conditions,” Pat Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association, told USA TODAY. “That's why I want the Department of Justice to look at the bigger picture and the whole story before jumping to conclusions.”

“Sample or practical examination:” The Justice Department is investigating Massachusetts police for discrimination and excessive use of force. What's next?

Investigation in Trenton after police shooting

The investigation was welcomed by Mount Laurel attorney Gregg Zeff, who represents a former Burlington City resident who was shot and paralyzed by Trenton police in February 2022.

“I'm also frustrated that it took the paralysis of Jajuan Henderson to bring the issue to the attention of the federal government but did not wake up Trenton,” Zeff said.

Henderson's lawsuit alleges that police officers arrived at his parked car shortly after midnight, smashed the driver's side window and shot him as he tried to call for help on his cellphone.

However, police said Henderson, then 29, was unable to produce identification or a driver's license and refused to exit the vehicle after being told he was under arrest. Police also alleged Henderson felt around inside the vehicle, “including under the seats.”

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who oversees the Justice Department's civil rights division, said the investigation was not prompted by a specific incident and the department is not alleging racial discrimination.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division spoke in Jackson, Mississippi, in June. The Justice Department filed court documents challenging a Mississippi law that allows the appointment of some judges in Jackson and Hinds counties, which are majority black. Most judges in Mississippi are elected, and Clarke said the appointment of judges discriminates against black residents.Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division spoke in Jackson, Mississippi, in June. The Justice Department filed court documents challenging a Mississippi law that allows the appointment of some judges in Jackson and Hinds counties, which are majority black. Most judges in Mississippi are elected, and Clarke said the appointment of judges discriminates against black residents.

What happens after a sample or practice examination?

Only one investigation of the pattern and practice was launched during Donald Trump's presidency, but under the Biden administration, investigations have become more frequent. Following the murder of George Floyd and nationwide protests for racial justice, the Justice Department opened investigations into police departments in Louisiana, Kentucky and Phoenix.

In June, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that Minneapolis and its police department had repeatedly violated human rights by using unnecessary and unjustified deadly force and discrimination. This came after a two-year investigation into the behavior patterns and practices. In July, the agency opened a similar investigation into the city of Memphis and the Memphis Police Department. The investigation came more than six months after Memphis police officers brutally beat 29-year-old Tyre Nichols during a traffic stop, and Nichols died three days later.

According to a 2017 Justice Department report, federal authorities closed 26 of nearly 70 investigations conducted between 1994 and 2016 without finding a pattern or practice of police misconduct.

Justice Department investigates Memphis police after the death of Tyre Nichols

But when such a pattern or practice is found, according to the Justice Department, investigations often end with a settlement that requires agencies to meet certain goals before federal oversight ends. Although settlements have been credited with improving practices in some of the nation's 18,000 police departments, some officials criticize the court-enforced plans as expensive, time-consuming and ineffective.

The investigation in Trenton is expected to take a year, “and if we find evidence of these violations, the department will take appropriate steps to correct them,” Clarke said Tuesday.

Contributors: Bart Jansen, USA TODAY; Kim Strong, Asbury Park Press;

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trenton police investigation: Justice Department launches civil rights probe

Anna Harden

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