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Justice Department warns Lexington to end ‘discriminatory policing’

Justice Department officials sent a letter Thursday to the Lexington Police Department, raising questions about its use of force, fines, arrests and “discriminatory policing.”

“Lexington must stop jailing people for outstanding fines without assessing their ability to pay,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke for the Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorney Todd Gee for the Southern District of Mississippi wrote in a joint letter.

City Attorney Katherine Riley responded Thursday, “We welcome the Justice Department’s presence, and we think it’s going to be a positive to the city of Lexington, to the police department and to the people. We are working to make better changes.”

Last April, Justice Department officials put out a letter explaining that courts needed to determine a person’s ability to pay before putting them behind bars.

In November, Clarke announced that the Justice Department had opened a civil rights investigation to determine whether the Lexington Police Department engaged in a pattern or practice of conduct that violated 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,” she said in a press conference.

In Thursday’s letter, she wrote that the Lexington Police Department “may not force people to remain in jail because they cannot afford to pay a fine or processing fee. LPD may not require payment as a condition of release unless it has conducted an appropriate assessment of the person’s ability to pay. If the person cannot afford to pay the fine, LPD may not jail them unless there are no alternatives that would satisfy its interests in punishment and deterrence.”

In a statement, Clarke said, “It’s time to bring an end to a two-tiered system of justice in our country in which a person’s income determines whether they walk free or whether they go to jail. Unjust enforcement of fines and fees is unlawful, and it traps people and their families in a vicious cycle of poverty and punishment. There is great urgency underlying the issues we have uncovered in Mississippi and we stand ready to work with officials to end these harmful practices and ensure the civil and constitutional rights of Lexington residents are protected.”

Gee noted that a third of those residing in Lexington “live below the poverty line. The burden of unjust fines and fees undermines the goals of rehabilitation and erodes the community’s trust in the justice system. Each step we take towards fair and just policing rebuilds that trust. Lexington and LPD can take those steps now, while our investigation is ongoing.”

In the joint letter, Justice Department officials warned police against seeking unlawful arrest warrants for people who owe fines.

These bench warrants “are not predicated on any ability-to-pay analysis,” the letter says. “They do not demand that the person come before the court. Instead, they order LPD to arrest the person and jail them for a certain number of days unless they pay the outstanding fine that they owe.”

Justice Department officials asked Lexington officials “to assess the serious concerns” identified in the letter and share how they plan to remedy them.

“We will continue to examine whether there is a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers that deprives people of their rights related to the collection and enforcement of fines and fees in violation of federal law,” the letter said.

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