A local pastor and a Yale Law School clinic are working to fight alleged racial discrimination by the East Haven police.
According to a 14-page legal complaint filed by the Yale Law School Jerome Frank Legal Services Organization on behalf of St. Rose of Lima Church, East Haven police have been discriminating against Latino residents by allegedly stopping them on the road, giving more penalties to Latinos than to people of other races and intimidating Latino-owned businesses on West Main Street. The town’s lawyer, Patricia Cofrancesco, recently told the New Haven Register that federal and East Haven officials have met and that the mayor is currently compiling information to send to the Justice Department.
“The police have continued, and maybe in some cases increased, what we believe to be harassment of Latinos in the community,” said Father James Manship, a pastor at St. Rose of Lima who is involved with the lawsuit.
The complaint cited 22 instances of alleged racial discrimination against Latino residents, who make up nearly six percent of East Haven’s population. Included in the allegations was the notion that East Haven police officers did not intervene when their peers committed discriminatory acts. Often, the lawsuit added, police allegedly used threats and race-based insults to intimidate Latino residents. The complaint said aggressive and continued police activity in and outside of Latino-owned businesses was scaring away customers who were afraid even to drive through East Haven.
According to the complaint, one resident, Juan — whose last name was not included — was stopped in his friend Guillermo’s car on their way to La Bamba Restaurant on 460 Main St. Juan, who had not been driving, was asked by an officer to show a driver’s license. When Juan asked for the ID card back, he was allegedly handcuffed, pepper sprayed in the face and beaten. At the police station, the same officer allegedly started hitting Juan, and another officer who was present allegedly did not intervene except to remove his companion’s weapon.
Manship said his church filed the federal complaint because East Haven police refused to recognize the existence of racial profiling. East Haven police declined comment for this article Thursday.
“We are providing [the Justice Department] with everything they ask for,” East Haven Police Chief Leonard Gallo told the New Haven Register in January. “The East Haven Police Department has nothing to hide.”
The Register reported at the time that the Justice Department has requested from East Haven police about 70 items, many of which concern the department’s policy and procedure. The police is providing its procedure manual, its union contract and other documents to the Justice Department, according to the Register.
State Rep. Mike Lawlor (D-East Haven) said Thursday that if police are stopping Latinos for valid reasons but nonetheless are profiling them, the church’s allegations will be difficult to prove. But he said he is confident the Justice Department will be able to figure out what needs to be done.
A Justice Department representative said Thursday that he was aware of the allegations but declined further comment.
Lawlor said that if racial discrimination has occurred, the Justice Department will help to forge a binding agreement among lawsuit parties to create police training programs and set mechanisms of police oversight to ensure that the profiling stop.
“But who knows whether they’ll find actual violations of the law,” Lawlor said.
Manship was himself arrested Feb. 19 for videotaping two police officers allegedly harassing Marcia Chacon, the Latino store owner of My Country Store on 677 Main St. Although police claimed at the time that they thought Manship was holding a sharp metal object, their allegations were later disproved by Manship’s video footage, according to the complaint.
Lawlor said that the training program for East Haven police had recently changed and that some residents have since claimed that police have been harassing Latino residents more.
The tense relations between Gallo and East Haven Mayor April Capone Almon do not foster the necessary communication to address problems in the police department, Lawlor said. In September 2009, East Haven police arrested Capone Almon because she was accused of stopping a police officer from towing cars and yelling at him. A state Superior Court judge on Monday dismissed a case against the mayor involving the yelling incident.
Capone Almon did not respond to multiple phone requests for comment over the weekend.
Werner Oyanavel, the acting director for the state Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, said he attributed the concerns to the dramatic influx of Latinos over the last 20 years from various Latin American countries and a misunderstanding of immigrants’ goal of coming to Connecticut to start a family and find work, he said. His state commission on Latino and Puerto Rican affairs has urged the Justice Department to complete the investigation.
“Any abuse of our population is not going to be tolerated,” Oyanavel said. “We just want equal treatment by the law.”
Lawlor said a similar Justice Department investigation is occurring in Oakland, Calif. According to Dec. 28 federal documents he provided, the Justice Department suggested to Oakland police that they provide written acknowledgment of their understanding of police policies, designate a legal specialist responsible for reviewing policy and implement a system for handling citizen complaints while retaining the right to prosecute false complaints.
East Haven residents held a vigil in December when the Justice Department accepted the request for a probe of the racial profile claims.