Cops around Connecticut are beset by controversy - Could that be a good thing?

This story contains a correction.

What the hell is going on with Connecticut cops? The past 18 months have seen an eruption of scandals, arrests, resignations, retirements and investigations triggered by all sorts of allegations of police wrongdoing.

There are federal grand juries investigating police harassment and brutality in East Haven and Meriden. Bridgeport’s deputy chief is under FBI scrutiny for allegedly obstructing a murder investigation. In Windsor Locks**, father and son policemen are arrested after a fatal accident. One high-ranking New Britain commander is charged with drunk driving and commits suicide; another is placed on leave amid sexual harassment allegations. In New Haven, an assistant chief busts a citizen for recording a police arrest, then retires as controversy erupts.

And an outside review finds an “overwhelming atmosphere of paranoia and distrust” within Hartford police ranks, citing the department’s internal affairs unit as a prime villain.

This apparent flood of bad-cop news stories might give you the idea we’ve entered a new dark age of police rottenness. According to a lot of legal and law enforcement authorities in Connecticut, that’s not the case.

In fact, they believe all these police controversies may be a sign that times are changing for the better.

“I don’t think there is any new river of police misconduct emerging,” says Jonathan Einhorn, a veteran defense attorney and a former member of the New Haven police commission. “This is the old stuff that’s finally being pursued.”

John Williams, a New Haven lawyer who’s handled dozens of police brutality, misconduct and discrimination cases, has the same opinion. “It’s not in any way unique to Connecticut. It’s common wherever you have police departments.”

“I have always though that Connecticut, for all its [police] problems, is better than many places,” says Williams. “At least we care about it, we think about it.”

Gov. Dannel Malloy’s top criminal justice adviser, Michael Lawlor, believes Connecticut has “a big problem” with an erosion of public confidence in law enforcement, but insists our troubles are nowhere near as bad as what goes on in cities like New Orleans and Los Angeles. “I think we’d be on the plus side of the spectrum compared to a lot of the rest of the country.”
Experts like John DeCarlo, a University of New Haven associate professor and a former Branford police chief, say more of these misconduct cases are now coming to light because local, state and federal officials are a lot more inclined to investigate police wrongdoing than they were 10 or 20 years ago.

“Chiefs and police administrators are more willing to step up and not sweep things under the rug,” says DeCarlo, who spent 34 years in law enforcement.

“What’s evident and where there’s good news is that finally the federal government and local authorities are starting to take seriously allegations of police misconduct,” says Einhorn.

“Historically, putting police feet to the fire over misconduct has been like pulling teeth — nobody wanted to do it.”

Andrew Schneider, executive director of the Connecticut branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, agrees. He says U.S. Justice Department officials in the past “have not always been sufficiently aggressive in prosecuting cases of police misconduct.”

That attitude is beginning to change, Schneider adds, noting that he is seeing federal prosecutors “take an interest in the issue of racial profiling, which is great.”

West Hartford Police Chief James Strillacci argues that Connecticut police have become more professional in recent decades, and that they are more willing to investigate complaints of misconduct by fellow officers now than they were years ago.

Top law enforcement officials, defense attorneys and former cops all emphasize that the vast majority of police at every level are honest types who are working hard to uphold the law rather than break it.

That doesn’t mean everybody’s happy with what cops are up to these days. For example, police use — or misuse — of electronic stun guns or Tasers is becoming increasingly controversial.
Police across Connecticut are now armed with Tasers and are using them more often to subdue people they’re arresting. They say using the stun weapon is a safe and effective alternative to other types of force, like beating somebody over the head with a baton. Critics warn Tasers are being used too quickly and unnecessarily, such as a recent incident when a Middletown cop used a stun gun on a high-school kid who’d stolen a meat patty from the cafeteria.

There are also fears that Tasers can kill when used on the wrong person at the wrong time. Over a five-year period, at least nine people in Connecticut have died after being Tasered by police. The manufacturer and police officials insist Tasers were not the direct cause of any of those deaths.

The Malloy administration and the ACLU last year pushed for state guidelines and training standards for the use of Tasers, but that bill never won legislative approval.
Another ACLU-backed proposal would have given legal protection from arrest to citizens who record police activities. The bill was a response to several police busts of people for taking pictures of cops making arrests, but that measure was another casualty of the 2011 General Assembly session.