The Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into potential unconstitutional policing practices by the Lexington, Mississippi police department. The small town of only around 1,600 residents represents the latest police department to face scrutiny, as the DOJ ramps up pattern-or-practice probes nationwide.
While most pattern-or-practice investigations target major city police forces, federal officials stressed the importance of oversight for smaller departments as well. The DOJ estimates half of all U.S. police departments have 10 officers or less.
Specifically, the Lexington investigation will assess whether officers have violated peoples’ rights through use of force, stops, searches, and arrests. Evidence of racially discriminatory policing practices will also be reviewed.
The probe was prompted by a “significant” number of complaints, however no single incident triggered the decision, according to the DOJ’s Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke. Lexington police and city officials were only just informed this week but have pledged cooperation.
Lexington PD Faced Past Controversies
This is not the first time concerns have been raised over Lexington police conduct. In 2021, a now former officer was fired and charged for allegedly assaulting a handcuffed suspect. Other officers have also faced excessive force lawsuits in recent years.
Critics argue the small 25-officer department lacks accountability and transparency around officer misconduct allegations. The NAACP has accused Lexington PD of over-policing Black neighborhoods.
Pattern-or-Practice Investigations Rising Under Biden
The Lexington investigation marks the latest in a ramped up effort by the Justice Department under the Biden administration to uncover civil rights abuses and discrimination by police departments nationwide.
Other cities currently under pattern-or-practice investigation include Phoenix, Louisville, and Springfield, Massachusetts. If violations are confirmed, the DOJ can sue to compel mandated reforms.
Scrutiny Expanded Beyond Major Cities
While scrutiny of larger police forces grabs headlines, investigating small town and rural departments has proven equally important in addressing systemic policing disparities.
Last year, the DOJ sued the Donaldsonville, Louisiana police department over allegations of unconstitutional excessive force and racist treatment of Black residents. The town has just over 7,000 residents.
Ensuring constitutional practices by police, regardless of community size, remains vital to rebuilding public trust and preventing further civil rights breaches. The Lexington probe represents the latest test of the DOJ’s expanded efforts to provide accountability.