A suburban police chief whose officers were accused of harassing Latinos is stepping down, but the mayor who appointed him — and who fueled the scandal with a wisecrack about tacos — gave no indication Monday that he would bow to pressure to resign.
The departure of East Haven, Conn., Police Chief Leonard Gallo was the strongest sign yet that the charges dogging the department, which have led to embarrassing videos and a mention on "The Colbert Report," could topple the city's power structure more than two years after the federal Department of Justice began investigating it.
"The poison begins at the top more often than not when leaders of these towns take after immigrants," said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate crimes nationwide. With census figures predicting that non-Latino whites will lose their majority in the United States by 2050, Potok said there was an "enormous level of rage and resentment" in some towns with fast-growing immigrant communities, such as East Haven.
"What we see typically is politicians opening the way with really vile verbal attacks on Latinos, so it's not too surprising that the police force falls in line behind those types of statements," he said.
The East Haven investigation began in September 2009 after complaints that police were subjecting Latinos to unreasonable traffic stops and other detentions, targeting their places of business and at times roughing them up. Latinos, who 10 years ago comprised about 4% of the population, now make up 10% of the city's 28,000 residents.
Justice officials, in a 23-page finding released in December, accused the police of "systematically discriminating against Latinos" and called the problem "deeply rooted" in the department's culture.
Its report, based on interviews as well as analyses of traffic stops and other police actions, found that in the case of one police officer, Latinos accounted for 40.5% of motorists he stopped, a number investigators called "an extraordinary deviation."
Despite the damning report and the arrest last week of four police officers, Gallo's attorney, Jonathan Einhorn, said the police chief was retiring voluntarily. At a news conference in East Haven, Einhorn said Gallo wanted to avoid being a "distracting element" as the city deals with the scandal. "His retirement is not an admission of any wrongdoing," Einhorn said.
But he acknowledged that Gallo is the unnamed alleged co-conspirator in the indictment that led to the officers' arrests on charges of conspiracy, deprivation of rights and obstruction of justice. "We don't believe criminal charges are justified, but it's anyone's guess what the Justice Department is planning," he said.
Mayor Joseph Maturo, who took office in November, said Gallo notified him Friday of his plan to retire. Maturo, who did not take questions, said Gallo's departure would let the police and the city "move forward with the healing that is necessary, given recent events."
Maturo has kept a low profile since his remark last Tuesday to a journalist — that he might "have tacos" to help East Haven's Latinos — sparked outrage by immigrant groups, and Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy called it "repugnant."
Maturo apologized, but by Monday, a Facebook page pushing for his ouster had 1,028 "likes" and was growing. The taco comment has led the New York Times and the Hartford Courant to call for Maturo's resignation, and the Courant reported that Latino leaders had met with Maturo on Monday and urged him to quit.