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Justice Department accuses Conn. police of bias against Latinos

December 19, 2011 |  1:32 pm

A federal Justice Department probe of the East Haven, Conn., Police Department has found a pattern of discrimination against Latinos, the latest legal blow aimed at the suburban department.

In a 23-page letter to town officials, federal investigators said their examination, which began in September 2009 found that the department intentionally targeted Latinos for traffic enforcement and treated Latino drivers more severely after traffic stops than other ethnic groups. In harsh language, the department criticized what it said was a deeply rooted culture of discrimination and a failure by the department to cooperate with investigators.

“This is very encouraging,” the Rev. James Manship, a Roman Catholic priest, of St. Rose of Lima church in New Haven, said in a telephone interview. Working with the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale University, Manship prepared a complaint for the Justice Department, alleging that Latinos were harassed and sometimes beaten by law enforcement personnel in East Haven.

“For us in a Latino, Catholic community, this is a season of hope and light,” Manship said. “The light glows a little bit brighter with this recognition.”

Town officials, including Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr., did not return telephone calls for comment. In the past the town has denied any mistreatment.

Maturo took office last month and recently reinstated Police Chief Leonard Gallo, who had been put on paid administrative leave last year after federal authorities began an investigation of the department with an FBI raid on the chief’s office. That investigation is continuing, a Justice Department spokeswoman said in a telephone interview from Washington.

East Haven is about 70 miles northeast of New York City. According to the 2010 census, it has about 30,000 people and is more than 88% white. About 10.3% of the people identify themselves as Latino, up from 4.4% in the 2000 census. The Police Department has about 50 uniformed officers.

The Justice Department examined records from Jan. 1, 2009, to Dec. 31, 2010. It said there was a pattern of discrimination and of poor supervision. For example, it found that about 40% of all traffic stops by one officer involved Latinos. Overall, the department stopped Latinos at a rate of 19.9%, though the town population of Latino drivers was about 8.3% and rises to as much as 15.5% when the surrounding areas are included.

Justice’s civil rights division opened its investigation of the department’s records after Manship’s complaint, which alleges that Latino motorists were stopped for no reason, even as they were leaving Latino-owned businesses. The complaint also accuses some officers of assaulting Latinos in police cars and at the station. The town, the Police Department and 20 members of the police force are also defendants in a civil lawsuit, alleging discrimination and ethnic profiling.

In 2009, Manship went to a store in East Haven, where there were complaints of police harassment, and where he videotaped two police officers. The priest was charged with disorderly conduct. The charges were eventually dropped.

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-- Michael Muskal

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