The racial-profiling-and-cop-brutality scandal now engulfing East Haven could cost taxpayers millions of dollars and years to overhaul their police department, according to experts and the experience of other cities hit with similar shitstorms.
Those same experts say the criminal arrests of four local cops — and the possibility that up to 15 could eventually be indicted — makes the East Haven case one of the most unusual in the history of U.S. Justice Department actions against city police agencies.
Angry local taxpayers don’t have to look very far to find the right people to blame, and it’s not the federal investigators and prosecutors involved, says David A. Harris.
Harris is a University of Pittsburgh law professor specializing in police practices, racial profiling and cases where cities have been placed under federal consent decrees to stop cops from violating people’s civil rights.
“It’s a shame the good citizens of East Haven are going to be paying for this,” says Harris, who adds people will understandably be asking why they must bear “huge sets of disruptions and costs.”
“The reason is because your own public officials allowed this police department to go completely out of control,” Harris says. “Either they stood by and let this fester or they actively helped create it.”
If East Haveners accept that verdict — and many clearly don’t want to — the guy sitting on the hottest seat would be Mayor Joseph “Taco” Maturo. He hired Len Gallo as police chief back in 1998 and brought Gallo back from administrative leave after Maturo narrowly won last November’s mayoral election.
Gallo, who was just allowed to retire, is believed to be the “Co-Conspirator 1” mentioned in the federal indictment of four East Haven cops arrested last month. East Haven and state officials say privately as many as 15 local police could be indicted by the time this mess is over.
East Haven’s troubles could serve as a hellish warning to any other Connecticut cities or towns that may have similar police problems. The U.S. Justice Department announced last year that it has opened a record number of investigations (as many as 17) of local police departments around the nation.
Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Detroit, Oakland and even the small city of Steubenville, Ohio are among the places that have experienced the kind of federal civil rights consent degree that is expected to be placed on East Haven.
All those communities saw federal monitors installed to effectively take control of local police. Most of the consent decrees ran at least five years. Expensive new police training was ordered, new computer systems installed, and special tracking and reporting programs set up to check on individual police actions. Policies on the use of force and the handling of citizen complaints were reformed, and the way cops investigated and disciplined themselves were totally revised.
“[In East Haven] it’s going to run into the millions of dollars,” one state official estimated privately.
John DeCarlo, a former Branford police chief who is now an associate professor at the University of New Haven, says East Haven may find it less expensive to comply with a federal order than other cities. He says East Haven does have a modern computer system already, and that retraining programs might not be “that huge in a 50-man department.”
But East Haven may be unique because of the arrests of local cops on criminal charges resulting from a federal grand jury probe that’s paralleled the federal civil rights investigation.
Federal prosecutors allege that these officers deliberately and routinely harassed Latinos, assaulted prisoners in handcuffs, slammed defendants’ heads against cell walls until they were bloody, intimidated other cops from reporting such violations, and then tried to cover up their illegal acts. All four officers have pleaded not guilty and a lawyer for former Chief Gallo insists his client has never been involved in wrongdoing or any coverup.
“Having arrests made as part of these kinds of investigations is highly unusual,” Harris says of the Justice Department’s history of similar civil rights investigations involving police misconduct.
“The federal government does not file these things lightly.”
Convicting cops of criminal wrongdoing is pretty freaking tough.
“Police officers in general get the benefit of the doubt from the public,” Harris points out. He says attempting to paint police officers as the bad guys “turns the world upside down” for Joe Average Citizen, and prosecutors know it.
So having the feds indict even four officers in East Haven (with potentially more to come) “is an indication of just how bad the conduct was,” Harris says.
One area of major concern with East Haven cops that was mentioned repeatedly in both a federal civil rights report and in the indictment of those four officers was “unreasonable force” used against Latino suspects. A civil lawsuit that’s been filed by Latinos who were allegedly harassed and brutalized by local police includes chilling allegations of cops handcuffing people and then repeatedly shocking them with Taser weapons.
Federal civil rights consent orders routinely emphasize the need for strict guidelines for when and how much force can be used against suspects, and for detailed reports and reviews after every incident. According to federal investigators, East Haven police frequently ignored or violated standard police use of force procedures when dealing with Latinos.
Some Connecticut officials familiar with the East Haven situation say they expect at least half the current department’s roster of 50 officers to be gone, either by indictment and conviction, through retirement, or good cops moving to other departments out of frustration.
“The idea that 50 percent of a department could be out is really extraordinary,” Harris says.
DeCarlo agrees it’s very unusual to see officers arrested in connection with these kinds of federal investigations, but is hoping the indictment count won’t be as high as some predict.
“The verdict is still out … as to how extensive the problem was,” he says.
One route East Haven almost certainly shouldn’t take is trying to fight a consent decree in court.
The city’s attorney, Hugh Keefe, hinted at that possibility last week when he declined to comment about a federal letter complaining about the way Maturo handled the selection of an interim police chief. “This will eventually be a piece of litigation that will end up in court, and that’s where it should be properly discussed,” Keefe told the New Haven Register.
“Good luck with that,” was the comment from Harris about the possibility of a court battle to stop any consent decree. He says the reasons cities haven’t done that elsewhere is “the difficulty of fighting off the 800-pound gorilla of the federal government, of the Department of Justice.”
Whatever the eventual cost, most experts say the outcome of nearly all these civil rights consent decrees has been a far better, more modern, more professional local police agency.
“Ultimately, I think you’ll see a very good relationship between East Haven and the Justice Department,” DeCarlo says.
“The idea is to structurally remake the police department, to make it into a different institution,” says Harris.
Officials in other cities that experienced federal consent decrees to overhaul their police department have repeatedly said one huge key to making the changes demanded by the feds is to bring in a new chief totally committed to reform.
Last week, Maturo picked former Stamford Police Chief Brent Larrabee. U.S. Justice Department officials indicated in a letter to the town that they were unhappy that Maturo hadn’t waited to consult with them about the choice, but Larrabee comes in with a pretty solid law enforcement reputation.
“I don’t see how it would have been possible to pick a better chief,” says DeCarlo. “He’s a very credible guy.”
Larrabee has been named as “interim chief,” but no one is saying exactly how long he’ll be around. At his appointment news conference, Larrabee admitted some East Haven cops may well be doubting if he’s going to be there long enough to carry out any extensive federal mandate.
“I’ll be here as long as the community and the mayor want me,” Larrabee said.
Maturo called Larrabee’s appointment “a new start for our community.”
But there’s no guarantee that Maturo will be around to see how all this finishes.
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