Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Good morning. My name is Kristen Clarke, Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. I am joined by U.S. Attorney Todd W. Gee, who serves here in the Southern District of Mississippi.
Today, the Justice Department is opening a civil rights investigation into the City of Lexington, Mississippi, and the Lexington Police Department (LPD) to determine whether they engage in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution and federal law. Specifically, we will assess whether the police department uses excessive force; violates people’s civil and constitutional rights during stops, searches and arrests; engages in discriminatory policing; or violates people’s rights to engage in speech or conduct protected by the Constitution.
Lexington is a small community, with approximately 1,600 residents, and a police department with fewer than 10 officers. In this regard, it is not unique. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, half of America’s police departments have 10 officers or fewer. The Justice Department is committed to protecting the constitutional rights of all Americans, whether they live in small towns or big cities. Residents of rural and underserved communities have the same rights and deserve the same protection as people who live in downtown Baltimore or the suburbs of Louisville. Police misconduct in smaller communities may not always garner national attention, but rest assured, the Justice Department is watching. No city, no town, no law enforcement agency is too large or too small to evade our enforcement of the constitutional rights every American enjoys. Small and mid-sized police departments cannot and must not be allowed to violate people’s civil rights with impunity. Just recently, in August, we obtained guilty pleas from five deputy sheriffs in nearby Rankin County and one police officer from Richland, Mississippi, for beating and torturing two Black men. Accountability applies everywhere and we hope this investigation makes crystal clear our commitment to ensuring constitutional policing in every corner of the country.
Based on an extensive review of information that is publicly available and that we received from stakeholders, we conclude there is significant justification to open this investigation now. For example, there are allegations that Lexington police officers have:
Stopped, searched and arrested people without justification;
Used force against people who did not pose a threat to the officers;
Used illegal roadblocks targeted at Black drivers; and
Retaliated against people exercising their right to question police action or record police activity. LPD also appears to have violated the First Amendment by routinely arresting people merely for using profanity.
Community members have offered troubling accounts of how these alleged practices have affected their lives, of injuries caused by gratuitous and excessive force, of alleged sexual assault and of repression and reprisal.
We know, too, that these allegations arise in a community that has already faced racial discrimination and economic disadvantage. Approximately 86% of Lexington’s population is Black, and it has a poverty rate approaching 30%. But it also has a storied place in civil rights history. In the face of violent opposition, residents persisted in registering and exercising their right to vote, and in 1967, elected the first Black representative to the Mississippi Legislature in the 20th century, who later went on to become Speaker of the Mississippi House. Underserved communities in the deep South will not be left behind as we carry out our work to ensure constitutional policing.
To be clear, this is the beginning of the investigation, not the end. We have drawn no conclusions. We are committed to conducting an independent, comprehensive and fair investigation. We will review incident reports, body-worn camera footage and other information regarding the interactions of Lexington police officers with the public. We will also review the Lexington Police Department’s policies and training materials and other internal documents to understand how the department operates. We will meet with police officers and observe them during their shifts to learn about their practices. And we will meet with members of the community at every stage to hear about their experiences with the department.
As 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. As always, we will not tolerate retaliation against community residents who participate in our investigation.
In the event we find violations, we will seek to work cooperatively with the city of Lexington and the Lexington 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.
We look forward to working together with city officials and the Lexington Police Department. We also look forward to working with the community as we carry out our investigation. We want the community to know that we see you, we hear you and we will stand up for you. We have just briefed Lexington officials about the investigation, and we are pleased that they have pledged their cooperation.
Since January 2021, our investigations have included larger departments, such as Phoenix, Minneapolis, Louisville, Kentucky, and Memphis, Tennessee, and mid-sized departments, such as Worcester, Massachusetts, and Trenton, New Jersey. The Lexington Police Department is one of the smallest we have investigated and one that represents most law enforcement agencies in our country.
As I close, I want to note that our pattern or practice investigations have fueled significant reforms by law enforcement agencies. In Seattle, for example, the police department has reduced the use of serious force by 60%. Officers now use force used in less than one-quarter of 1% of all events to which they respond. 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. And under the consent decree in Albuquerque, use of force declined by 25% and violations of the force policy fell by half.
Misconduct by law enforcement — excessive force, discrimination, illegal stops and searches, violations of First Amendment rights — such abuses undermine public trust and harm racial minorities and other vulnerable populations. They discredit law enforcement. And they are anathema to effective policing. These problems, though, can be fixed. It is possible to restore public trust, to build a working relationship with the community and to instill in the department a culture of nondiscrimination and respect for constitutional rights. We are committed to working with officials in Lexington to achieve these goals.
The Civil Rights Division is pleased to conduct this investigation in partnership with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. I’ll now turn the floor over to U.S. Attorney Gee.