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East Haven's Police Scandal Plays Out in Elections and Town Finances

Let's hope no one in East Haven (or Connecticut for that matter) is gullible enough to believe that town's marathon racial-profiling-and-police-abuse nightmare is now over because of last week's guilty verdicts for two cops.

It is easy to understand why some might want to latch on to that sort of fantasy.

After all, this mess has triggered horrible national publicity; a federal civil rights investigation that uncovered years of wrongdoing; guilty pleas by two other officers; a court order for an outside monitor; major police reforms; and changes in state law to prevent this from happening elsewhere.

East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr., who happens to be running for reelection right now, is trying like hell to sound as upbeat as possible about what comes next.

"What is clear is that for all of our residents, it is an opportunity to close a difficult chapter in our town's past and move forward as one, unified community," was Maturo's optimistic statement on the verdicts.

(That's the same Joe Maturo who earned the nickname "Taco" for his response to a reporter's question about what he planned to do for the Hispanic community in the wake of the scandal. "I might have tacos when I go home," Maturo quipped, a comment he later apologized for.)

Unfortunately for Maturo and his supporters, there's another very big shoe out there waiting to drop. When it does, the impact on East Haven taxpayers could be felt for years to come.

A lawsuit on behalf of 10 police-abuse victims has been hanging fire waiting for the outcome of the criminal case. When a federal jury found ex-East Haven cops Dennis Spaulding and David Cari guilty of civil rights violations, the way was cleared for the federal lawsuit to go forward.

"I fully expect we will be reinstating the civil rights litigations," says Michael Wishnie. He's a Yale Law School professor and, with the help of some of his students, is one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs.

Wishnie last week hadn't had a chance to confer with his clients and didn't know how other events might influence the timing of the civil rights lawsuit.

Spaulding and Cari may well appeal their conviction. They're currently scheduled for sentencing in January. The defendants in the civil rights suit, including Maturo's administration, could ask for further delays.

Meanwhile, the jury verdict against Spaulding and Cari seemed to confirm the claims made in the civil suit.

"I'm saddened the defendants are facing significant sentences in jail," says Wishnie. "But I'm pleased the stories from the community were heard and resonated powerfully with the jury."

"I hope this signals a better future for the East Haven Police Department and an end to the vicious conduct described at the trial and end to the tolerance toward that conduct in the town," Wishnie adds.

The acting U.S attorney for Connecticut, Deirdre M. Daly, had similar thoughts on the verdict: "This prosecution and the jury's swift and unambiguous verdict should send a very strong message that there is no place in law enforcement for anyone who abuses power or victimizes defenseless individuals."

The abuses detailed at the trial of Cari and Spaulding and in the federal civil rights investigation are about as ugly as racial profiling gets, and are virtual duplicates of the allegations in the civil lawsuit.

"The profiling has included not only hundreds of traffic stops but also more aggressive and violent conduct such as beatings, use of Tasers, false and illegal arrests, conspicuous shows of force designed to disrupt commerce, and even raids of legitimate business, all for the purpose of intimidating the Latino community," the lawsuit's introduction reads in part.

The outcome of the criminal trial, along with everything that's gone before, makes the outcome of the civil lawsuit appear a foregone conclusion.

"I think that after the verdict... it seems more likely to be cut and dried," is the opinion of state Rep. James Albis, D-East Haven. He's worried about the financial penalties the lawsuit is likely to involve.

"It's certainly going to be a burden on taxpayers," he warns.

That's "burden" as in potentially millions of dollars, according to experts familiar with other police abuse civil rights cases.

Connecticut had a law on the books for more than a decade that was supposed to prevent racial profiling by local police by requiring cops to report who they were stopping for traffic violations and why. But the Alvin Penn Act (named for a black lawmaker who proposed the law after he was racially profiled) was never enforced or funded.

The huge East Haven scandal finally triggered a response in the General Assembly, and the state is now putting into effect a revamped reporting system that experts believe will allow police departments and the state to monitor and prevent future racial profiling scandals.

Meanwhile, the East Haven civil lawsuit drama will continue to play out.

Cari and Spaulding are two of the defendants named in the civil suit. Another is former Officer Jason Zullo, who, along with former Sgt. John Miller, pleaded guilty to civil rights violations and awaits sentencing.

One of the others named in the lawsuit is former Chief Leonard Gallo.

Gallo was a close ally of Maturo's and is believed to be the "Co-Conspirator 1" repeatedly referred to in the original federal indictments of the four East Haven cops. He has not been charged as he was allowed to retire after the scandal broke.

Maturo originally hired Gallo as chief back in 1998 during Maturo's first go-round as mayor. Gallo was put on leave by Maturo's successor, and when Maturo was reelected in 2011, he quickly returned Gallo to the chief's post.

There was lots of speculation that way more than four East Haven police would be indicted and that Gallo would be among them. Gallo has denied any wrongdoing.

One source familiar with the investigation, who asked not to be identified, says federal law enforcement officials apparently felt the federal five-year statute of limitations had already run out on several potential charges against other East Haven police.

Maturo's connections to Gallo and to the long-running police-abuse scandal are certain to have a major impact on the mayoral race being decided next month.

A Republican who has served as mayor for 12 of the past 16 years (years when the racial profiling by local cops was apparently at its worst), Maturo is up against Democrat John "Jack" Stacey.

For many outsiders, it's kind of weird to think that a guy like Maturo could survive this kind of hellish scandal and actually get reelected.

But then some weird things have been going on in East Haven for a long time.

 

ghladky@newhavenadvocate.com

Follow @GregoryBHladky on Twitter

 

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