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Officer claims Meriden police chief allowed hostile atmosphere

Posted: Saturday, February 25, 2012 10:36 pm
By Dan Ivers, Record-Journal staff

MERIDEN — When claims of widespread favoritism and misconduct within the police department surfaced in March last year, the city was forced to take several actions, including placing Officer Evan Cossette, the chief’s son, on administrative duty and hiring an attorney to conduct an independent review.

However, recent lawsuit notices filed by officers who raised the allegations maintain that the city has failed to protect them from retaliation and harassment by fellow officers.

In his notice delivered to the City Clerk’s office on Thursday, Officer Brian Sullivan claims that the city and Chief Jeffry Cossette “have allowed this atmosphere of intimidation and threats to permeate the Department with no regard for Officer Sullivan’s Constitutional Rights.” Officer Donald Huston has filed a similar notice.

Chief Cossette did not respond to a request for comment about the retaliation allegations. He has repeatedly denied the allegations of disparate treatment within the department, claiming Huston and Sullivan are retaliating for disciplinary action taken against them.

Three separate investigations into claims by Sullivan and Huston were launched last year. In addition to hiring the independent attorney, the city called in State’s Attorney Michael Dearington, who began a probe with the help of the state police. Shortly thereafter, the FBI announced it would conduct an investigation of its own. All three investigations are ongoing.

City Manager Lawrence J. Kendzior declined to comment on any of the claims in the notices to sue the city.

“An independent investigation is being done by the city and for the city, and until that is completed (he will not comment),” he said.

The city has no specific policy on employees designated as whistleblowers, although Kendzior said he believed state whistleblower statutes would apply to employees such as Huston and Sullivan. In order to be classified as such, Huston and Sullivan would need to file a retaliation complaint with the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, which could then extend the whistleblower designation after an investigation.

Huston and Sullivan’s attorney, Frank P. Cannatelli, said he plans to file the retaliation complaints with the commission in the coming weeks.

It is not uncommon for intimidation and retaliation allegations to arise when police conduct becomes the subject of outside investigations, said William F. Dow III, a New Haven criminal defense attorney.

“The problem with police departments that a lot of people don’t appreciate is they’re almost always divided between people on one side who like the chief and people on the other side who don’t. There are always factions,” he said. “Oftentimes, that leads to petty and sometimes irrational behavior.”

In the weeks after the investigations became public, several officers filed internal affairs complaints against Huston and Sullivan, claiming they were untruthful or had been negligent in their duties. Many of the complaints were filed at the urging of the police union, which has not backed either officer in their claims.

Because Huston and Sullivan alleged that Internal Affairs Division officers Leonard Caponigro and Glen Milslagle were complicit in covering up or inadequately punishing misconduct by certain officers the city assigned the complaints to Detective Lt. Mark Walerysiak. Walerysiak, who has since been assigned to Internal Affairs full-time, is named as a defendant in both officers’ pending lawsuits.

The chief has denied Huston and Sullivan’s allegations against the Internal Affairs Division.

A third officer, Leighton “Bud” Gibbs, intends to file a suit alleging that he has also been subject to frivolous internal affairs complaints and other harassment due to his cooperation with the federal investigation, according to Cannatelli.

George Kain, a criminal justice professor at Western Connecticut State University, former state probation officer and member of Ridgefield’s Police Commission, said that in a similar situation, a town’s Police Commission could step in to handle internal investigations and any resulting disciplinary hearings.

Meriden does not have a police commission. In the absence of a police commission, the work could be handed over to the state police to avoid any conflicts or appearance of impropriety.

“It would seem to me that they would want to have an independent body investigate,” Kain said.

A recent federal probe that resulted in four East Haven officers being indicted for allegedly violating the civil rights of Latino citizens also focused on retaliatory measures taken against officers who were cooperating with investigators.

Issued in January, the East Haven indictment says that a pair of union leaders and another unnamed co-conspirator “actively took steps to strongly discourage, and even to threaten, fellow officers and other witnesses, who might report officer misconduct or cooperate in investigations of the EHPD.”

Terrence Dwyer, another criminal justice professor at WCSU and a former New York state trooper, said that retaliation lawsuits brought by officers in similar situations have a mixed record in courts around the country.

“Officers have won and officers have lost,” he said.




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