Justice Dept. investigates complaints against Newark police

MONTCLAIR, New Jersey Mon May 9, 2011 7:02pm EDT

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MONTCLAIR, New Jersey (Reuters) - The Department of Justice said on Monday it was investigating the Newark police department, the state's largest, after receiving civil rights complaints and claims of excessive force tied to seven deaths.

The probe will focus on charges police use excessive force, treat detainees poorly, conduct illegal stops, searches and arrests and retaliate against civilians who attempt to observe or record police activity, the Justice Department's civil rights division said in a statement.

The investigation will look for a pattern of systemic civil rights violations within the police department, it said.

"Our goal is to conduct a fair, thorough and independent review and find the truth," Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said in a statement.

Similar investigations are underway in police departments elsewhere, including New Orleans and Seattle.

News of the probe comes less than a week after Newark's top police official Garry McCarthy said he was leaving to run Chicago's police department under Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel.

The investigation also comes eight months after the American Civil Liberties Union called for government oversight of the 1,300-member Newark police, alleging widespread abuses.

"This has been a long time coming," said Alex Shalom, policy counsel for the New Jersey ACLU, noting the organization first called for federal oversight of Newark police in 1967.

The ACLU said it found 418 claims of police misconduct over a two-and-a-half-year period beginning in 2008, including false arrests, planting evidence, retaliation against citizens and employees and use of excessive force that resulted in serious injuries and the deaths of seven people.

Calls to the Newark police department for comment were not immediately returned.

The investigation comes at a tumultuous time for the department. McGarry, who has been with the force since 2006, is leaving for Chicago, and 167 police officers were laid off at the end of last year due to budget constraints, the largest police layoff in 32 years.

Since the cuts, crime has soared, and the murder rate in March was double that of a year ago, according to police department statistics.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Ellen Wulfhorst)

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