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 Feds: East Haven Police Discriminate Against Latinos

By DAVE ALTIMARI,

The Hartford Courant

9:55 PM EST, December 19, 2011

The East Haven police department is "profoundly broken" with a pattern of discrimination, particularly against Latinos, so deeply rooted that it will take years to change, the U.S. Department of Justice's top civil rights attorney said Monday.

Federal authorities announced results of a probe into civil rights complaints. But left hanging was the questions of whether East Haven officials will make changes voluntarily and also whether any officers will face criminal charges.

A grand jury has been hearing evidence for nearly a year on allegations stemming from the civil rights investigation. Sources have said that six to 15 officers could face federal criminal charges.

Deputy U.S. Attorney General Roy Austin Jr. said federal authorities hope to work with East Haven officials, but if necessary they will go to federal court to force the town to change its policies.

Austin called the two-year investigation into claims that the department violated the civil rights of Latinos by unfairly targeting them in traffic stops "one of the more challenging investigations to obtain information" the department has ever encountered.

Austin cited Police Chief Leonard Gallo as "creating a hostile work environment" for anyone who cooperated with the investigation and attempting to "erect a blue wall of silence" around the investigation. He also described seeing the reference to "rats within the PD" on a bulletin board in the department.

"This is a department that is profoundly broken in many ways,'' Austin said at a Monday afternoon press conference. "This department systematically deprived Latinos of their constitutional rights."

Among the findings released in the scathing 23-page report:

•The number of Latinos stopped by the department, particularly officers working the 4 p.m.-12:30 a.m. shift, was extraordinarily high. Among some officers, nearly 50 percent of their traffic stops over a two-year period involved Latino drivers. For other officers, more than 33 percent of their traffic stops involved Latinos. The town's Latino population is 10 percent.

•Latino drivers are subject to much harsher treatment once they are stopped for a traffic violation. The DOJ report said that in many instances their cars were towed and the drivers forced to post a surety bond.

•DOJ accuses the department of deliberately targeting Latinos by following them and waiting for them to commit a motor vehicle violation, or by attempting to find a defect with their license plate and by citing them for speeding without cause. In one case, an officer looked up insurance information on a car before stopping it.

•The department's use of immigration laws is "haphazard" and used primarily to "harass and intimidate the Latino community." The report said that on numerous instances East Haven police contacted federal Homeland Security officials and asked for an "immigration hold" on Latinos who had been arrested on traffic violations, not felonies.

The civil rights investigation started two years ago after the Rev. James Manship was arrested while trying to videotape the arrest of a Latino man inside the My Country Store on Main Street. That arrest led to the filing of a federal civil rights lawsuit prepared with the assistance of the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale University. Nine plaintiffs alleged racial profiling and the use of excessive force by police.

Manship said Monday that the federal investigation vindicates what many Latinos already knew about the department.

"This is not about one or two bad officers. It's about the culture of a department that people cannot have confidence in,'' Manship said. "If the federal government cannot have an impact here then we are really in trouble".

Manship made it clear that East Haven is off to a bad start by bringing back Gallo as chief. Gallo had been placed on administrative leave last April but was immediately re-instated when Mayor Joseph Maturo took office after narrowly defeating former Mayor April Capone Almon in November.

"I am astounded that the mayor reappointed the chief who presided over the department when all of this was happening,'' Manship said. "Chief Gallo is not the guy to lead the department in a new direction."

Outside city hall Monday, Maturo said: "Unfortunately, I'm dissatisfied with the report. I think it's kind of slanderous to our community. I don't think it had any facts to it but I take heart and we will look at it."

Two East Haven police commissioners who attended the DOJ press conference agreed that Gallo should not have been reinstated but acknowledged that under the town charter the mayor has final authority on hiring or firing the chief.

"We absolutely need a new chief. It all starts from the top,'' Police Commission Chairman Frederick Brow said. "But the mayor has pretty well put us aside as a board and doesn't want our opinion."

Maturo met with Austin and other DOJ officials Monday afternoon.

Austin said there are several remedial measures that federal officials want the department to take, including updating all of its policies to include a comprehensive non-discrimination policy, better training for officers on non-biased policing, improving its internal affairs department to insure officers are properly investigated, updating record keeping to better track arrests and improving communications with minorities by teaching more officers Spanish.

Currently, just one of the 50 officers in the department is fluent in Spanish.

While the civil rights investigation has been completed, the criminal case, which is about a year old, is still ongoing, according to U.S. Attorney David Fein.

At least 24 active town police officers had been subpoenaed to appear before the federal grand jury sitting in Bridgeport, according to a source familiar with the proceedings. It is unclear if those officers are targets of the investigation or witnesses who will be asked about the conduct of others.

As recently as two weeks ago, witnesses were still being called before the grand jury. Before Gallo returned to duty, FBI agents showed up at the police station and searched his office, which had been locked since he was put on leave.

DOJ Letter re East Haven PD

 


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