East Haven Police Officers Found Guilty Of Systematic Discrimination Against Latinos

CREDIT: Bob Child/ AP

On Monday, a federal jury found two Connecticut police officers guilty of civil rights abuses, as part of a broader investigation into the East Haven Police Department’s systematic discrimination against Latinos. The jury reviewed evidence that officers Dennis Spaulding and David Cari conspired to “injure, threaten, and intimidate various members of the East Haven community.”

Trial testimony argued that Cari and Spaulding singled out Latino-owned businesses. More than once, Spaulding used excessive force on Latino residents. In one incident in 2008, Spaulding slammed a handcuffed Latino restaurant owner to the ground and repeatedly kicked him in the back and legs. Cari also conducted an illegal search of a car parked outside the Ecuadorean-owned “My Country Store” grocery store and later conducted an “illegal search of the back room of the store in an effort to unlawfully seize the store’s video recording equipment.”

Roman Catholic priest Rev. James Manship started carrying a video camera after many of his Latino parishioners complained that they were being harassed by police. Cari arrested him when he saw the camera, writing in his report that he saw the priest take out an “unknown shiny object.” Manship’s video footage, however, showed Cari asking Manship why he had a camera. The footage spurred an investigation into several other allegations against the officers.

Cari and Spaulding were charged last year along with Sgt. John Miller and Officer Jason Zullo. Spaulding and Zulllo allegedly assaulted two people by slamming their heads against the walls in the police station, and Zullo allegedly ripped a Latino man’s sweater off while he was being held in a cell. Meanwhile, Miller was accused of striking a handcuffed man. Miller and Zullo pleaded guilty to lesser charges and are awaiting sentencing.

These abuses were exposed in a 2011 Department of Justice investigation, which found the East Haven Police Department illegally targeted and abused Latino drivers during traffic stops. According to a New Haven Independent report, “Latino drivers have been issued exorbitant tickets, had their cars towed, and been told to get out of town…The owners said police officers punch holes in licenses and throw out-of-state licenses to the ground, saying that they are worthless. Two store owners said that the police ripped in half the license of one out of state driver.” Other Latino residents like the “My Country Store” owners claimed that police officers waited to pull them over for a supposed traffic violation. And while Connecticut police officers can pull drivers over without probable cause, Rev. Manship said that Spaulding frequently pulled over Latino drivers.

This brutality was apparently not confined to these few officers. Manship said that Police Chief Leonard Gallo “cultivated a racist and dishonest police force.” Even after the release of the DOJ report, East Haven police officers worked with federal authorities to deport Latino immigrants.

East Haven lawmakers have largely ignored the discrimination against Latinos. In 2012, after a reporter asked how the indictment of Spaulding and Cari would affect community outreach efforts with Latinos, East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr. responded, “I might have tacos when I go home. I’m not sure yet.” Days after appointing a Puerto Rican man to an advisory board under public pressure, Maturo Jr. said, “I picked a Latino. Did it have to come from a certain section of the country? Is he not dark enough for you? Light enough for you?”

East Haven’s racial abuses are hardly unusual. In recent years, the Department of Justice found that police practiced racial discrimination in cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, New York City, and Phoenix.