Remarks As Prepared for Delivery
Good morning. My name is Kristen Clarke, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. I am joined by U.S. Attorney Philip R. Sellinger, who serves here in the District of New Jersey.
Today, the Justice Department is opening a civil rights investigation into the City of Trenton and the Trenton Police Department (TPD) to determine whether there is a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution and federal law.
We conduct these investigations for two reasons. First, our obligation to protect the constitutional rights of community members. And second, our mission to ensure effective policing. Effective policing requires public trust. When law enforcement officers violate the constitution and federal law, it erodes trust and undermines public safety efforts.
This investigation will focus on two core areas. First, whether the Trenton Police Department is engaged in a pattern or practice of using excessive force. And second, whether the Trenton Police Department is engaged in a pattern or practice of unlawfully stopping, searching, and arresting individuals traveling on foot or by car.
Our decision to open this investigation is based on an extensive review of publicly available information including court records, media reports, statistical data and we also assessed body-worn camera footage and other information provided to us. For example:
- We reviewed information about problematic uses of force, including force against people who are suspected of only minor traffic offenses, who are complying with commands, and who are not resisting or who are restrained.
- We also reviewed information suggesting that officers may have used force to punish individuals for exercising their constitutional right to observe and question police activity.
- In addition, 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.
- We have also reviewed information suggesting that officers may have routinely stopped pedestrians and vehicles to conduct warrantless searches and arrests without a sufficient legal basis. And in some cases, pedestrian and vehicle stops resulted in TPD officers using force, sometimes causing serious injuries to the individuals involved.
These allegations are serious and credible. Our investigation will seek to establish whether these allegations are true, and whether TPD is engaged in a pattern or practice of violations of the Constitution or federal law. The investigation will be thorough and objective.
We will review incident reports, body-worn camera footage and other information regarding the interactions of TPD officers with the public. We will also review the Trenton Police Department’s policies and training materials as well as documents related to its systems of accountability, including how it investigates citizen complaints and disciplines officers. We will meet with TPD’s command and line staff, and we will observe TPD officers during their shifts to better understand their interactions with the community. We will meet with and listen carefully to the public and gather information regarding their encounters with the TPD.
As we begin this investigation, we recognize the challenges that Trenton and TPD face in addressing violent crime. But meeting these challenges requires confidence by the public that the police are committed to protecting them. It requires the assurance that police do not hold themselves above the law. It requires collaboration between the community, police and local officials. In short, as I said before, it requires public trust. Building that confidence and trust is one of the key objectives of this investigation.
Our decision to open this investigation is not based on a single incident or event, nor is it limited to a specific unit or bureau within the Trenton Police Department. It is also separate from any criminal prosecution of TPD officers that the U.S. Attorney’s Office or Civil Rights Division has pursued or may pursue in the future.
As we do in every investigation, we will follow the facts and the law wherever they lead. If we find reasonable cause to believe that there is a pattern or practice of constitutional or statutory violations, we will issue a public report of our conclusions. If we do not find such violations, we will announce that result.
In the event we find violations, we will seek to work cooperatively with the city and the Trenton Police Department to reach an agreement on remedies. If we cannot reach such an agreement, then the Justice Department is authorized to bring a civil lawsuit seeking injunctive relief to address the violations.
This marks the beginning and not the end of our investigation. We look forward to working with City officials, the Trenton Police Department and the community as we carry out our investigation.
Today’s investigation marks our 11th pattern and practice investigation since 2021. Our experience across the country shows that our pattern and practice investigations have fueled change and transformation in policing. In Seattle, for example, the police department has reduced the use of serious force by 60 percent, and force is now used in less than one-quarter of one percent of all events to which officers respond. And in Baltimore, the independent monitor found that officers are using force less often and, when they do use force, it is more likely to be consistent with police department policy and the law.
This investigation should send a strong message to police departments across our country regarding our firm commitment to ensuring constitutional, fair and effective policing.
I’ll now turn the floor over to U.S. Attorney Sellinger. Thank you.