Suit accuses police of rights abuses

Francisco Ortiz, director of public security for Yale West Campus, is currently embroiled in a $10 million federal civil rights lawsuit that has also been brought against New Haven Police Department and the city.

New Haven criminal defense attorney Diane Polan filed a complaint Feb. 1 against Ortiz for allegedly condoning anti-constitutional interrogation techniques in his former position as New Haven’s chief of police. The suit was filed on behalf of Ernest Pagan, a resident construction worker who spent 13 months in jail for a crime he did not commit before his acquittal in March 2008.

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Among other things, the suit charges that detectives, whom Ortiz had trained, coerced three witnesses into identifying Pagan as the shooter in a murder investigation, stripped Pagan naked and starved him for three days.

Police arrested Pagan in February 2007 and changed him with the murder of Tony Howell and the attempted murder of James Brown, who had both been shot (Howell fatally) outside Newt’s Café, a nightclub on Whalley Avenue, on Christmas Eve 2006. Three witnesses later identified Pagan as the shooter, and he spent 13 months at the Walker-McDougall Correctional Institution in Suffield before his trial began because he could not pay the $3 million bail.

But when the case went to trial, the three witnesses recanted their statements and a Superior Court jury acquitted him in March 2008.

According to the 31-page complaint Polan filed, the detectives investigating Howell’s murder allegedly ignored descriptions of the shooter that ran contrary to Pagan’s profile and did not ask if witnesses had been using drugs or alcohol. But one witness volunteered that he was smoking PCP and marijuana when the crime occurred and another said he had drunk a lot.

The lawsuit also alleges that Pagan asked repeatedly to phone an attorney during his interrogation but was denied. The complaint says that Pagan saw Ortiz when he was taken out of his eight-by-10-foot room on Feb. 2, 2006, and said, “Chief, when can I get a call to my lawyer?” Ortiz walked away without a word, according to the complaint.

Ortiz, who is being represented by the city, and Mayor John DeStefano Jr.s spokesman Jessica Mayorga both declined comment. Mayorga said in an e-mail that the city is not in a position to comment on the case.

Though Yale currently employs Ortiz, the University is not involved with his defense, University Vice President and General Counsel Dorothy Robinson said in an e-mail.

“It is my understanding that counsel for the City of New Haven is providing representation in this civil case,” said Deputy University Secretary Martha Highsmith, who handles security matters. “I have complete confidence in Mr. Ortiz and am grateful for his leadership in our security services.”

In an interview, Polan attributed Pagan’s false arrest to the NHPD’s desire between 2006 and 2007 to close cases quickly and arrest somebody, even the wrong person. But she added that she does not know if those attitudes have prevailed under current Police Chief James Lewis.

Polan said she is not claiming Ortiz directly violated Pagan’s constitutional rights but that, under Ortiz’s supervision, detectives were trained to use questionable tactics. Those tactics included asking people who were not at the crime scene to be witnesses and instructing witnesses to identify certain suspects as the perpetrators of a crime. She said Ortiz is at fault because he condoned and encouraged such practices and trained his detectives to compel suspects and witnesses to make false statements.

Yale Law lecturer and human rights attorney Hope Metcalf said it was not uncommon for police chiefs to be sued for the actions of their inferiors for a failure to train or for tolerating abuses.

“The key question is whether the supervisor knew of the constitutional violations by the front-line officers,” she said.

Polan said it is too early to say whether the suit would settle before going to court because the defendants have not yet responded to lawsuit. She declined to name a dollar amount for which Pagan would settle.

“[Pagan is] hoping to get just compensation for what happened to him,” Polan said. “The problem is [the NHPD] can never give somebody back that part of [his] life.”

Polan filed a similar lawsuit in November 2009 on behalf of a man, Norman Falconer, who a state cop had watched New Haven detectives frame during a drug raid in 2006.

Ortiz retired from the NHPD in November 2007 after 25 years in the force and five as chief.

Correction: Feb. 15, 2010

An earlier version of this article misquoted Law School lecturer Hope Metcalf ’96, who said it is not uncommon for police chiefs to be sued for the actions of their inferiors whom the chiefs failed to train or whose abuses they tolerated. “The key question is whether the supervisor knew of the constitutional violations by the front-line officers,” she said. In addition, Metcalf’s position was misreported; she is a lecturer in the Law School, not a professor.

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