On Sunday afternoon, about 10 men and a couple of women were gathered inside La Bamba’s, a Latino-owned bar on Main Street in East Haven, Conn. “Look at this place,” said manager Esdras Marin, gesturing toward the empty bar. “On a Sunday afternoon like this, this place would have been full. People are afraid to come. The police come by here and harass us.”
In November 2008, an officer waiting outside of the bar pushed Marin’s brother to the ground, driving his chin into the concrete and drawing blood. The officer handcuffed the man’s hands behind his back and then proceeded to kick him repeatedly.
“The cops are out of control,” said Marin.
Each of the men and women in the bar on Sunday had a story to tell about the police harassment. A 40-year-old construction worker who’d come to East Haven from Ecuador a decade ago recalled, “It was winter and they took my car when they stopped me and they made me walk through he snow.” He added, “My friend left and went back to Ecuador out of fear. They arrested him and beat him up in jail. He got out and left.”
The stories are the same all over town: Latino residents who’ve been profiled, beat up, followed and taunted by local police officers. They’re the stories that populate dozens of pages of recently released legal documents manifesting a clear pattern of unchecked police violence.
In December, the Justice Department issued a report charging that the East Haven cops systemically profile and harass Latinos. Last week, the FBI arrested four of East Haven’s 49 active-duty officers on related criminal charges. East Haven’s Mayor Joseph Maturo then made national headlines when he offered to solve the city’s racism problems by eating tacos for dinner. On Monday, facing growing outcry from across the country, including the mocking delivery of 500 tacos to his office, Maturo announced that his police chief, Leonard Gallo, would resign.
The swirling events in the 30,000-person town have for good reason been focused on needed change in the city’s government and police force. Advocates and residents have long understood East Haven to be a hotbed of racism from a lawless and unaccountable police force. Many people of color have left the area. Others continue to live in fear.
But the events unfolding in East Haven point to a related problem that’s gone largely without discussion in the last two months of disarray. As East Haven’s police have been profiling and harassing Latino residents for the last five years, they have also been shuttling them into deportation proceedings.
After profiling, falsely arresting and often brutalizing Latinos in town, the cops routinely called ICE to report those without papers, locals charge. “When they come into this bar,” explains Marin, “the first thing they check is immigration status. And then they’ll probably call immigration.”
Even as the Department of Justice was investigating the police for alleged civil and criminal violations, another federal agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was acting in cahoots with the East Haven cops’ assault on immigrants.
ICE has consistently claimed that its enforcement practices do not rely on racial profiling to find immigrants and that it only deports serious criminals. The unfolding drama in East Haven does significant damage to that claim.
From Italian to Latino
In the middle of the 2000s, the demographics of East Haven began to shift. Latinos from surrounding areas began moving to East Haven for cheaper rent and a calmer life. Shops with names like Los Amigos and La Bamba’s opened on Main Street. The Latino population grew from 4 percent of the city’s residents in 2000 to 10 percent in 2010.
For some white residents, the changes felt like an existential threat.
Ferdinando Cerrato, a 79-year-old man dressed in a worn corduroy jacket, stood in the town office building waiting to pay his taxes after the mayor announced Gallo’s departure on Monday. “They’ve destroyed our culture and our history,” he said. “Everything you see and everywhere you go, everything is in Spanish.”
Referring to the FBI’s recent arrests, Cerrato told Colorlines.com, “The cops are the wrong ones to be arrested. The Latinos should be arrested because they are illegal.”
Cerrato says his parents were Italian immigrants who “came to the U.S. in 1928 and waited in line to come in. Back then, we came the right way. Now you can enter illegal and then they get rewarded instead of arrested.”
The only book on Italian immigration to Connecticut in the town’s public library paints a different picture of that history. The book’s author wrote that in 1927 her Italian father and uncle “didn’t have enough money for the trip … so a friend of theirs helped them to stow away on the ship.” He was later deported.
Under the leadership of Gallo, the police department of the predominantly Italian-American town forgot this history as it honed in on Latino migrants, in what appears to be a ruthless attempt to drive them out.
On Sunday afternoon, a man named Fernando stood chatting with others inside My Country Store, another Latino-owned business on Main Street. “Basically,” explained Fernando, who works for a company fixing train tracks in New Haven, “if you’re Latino they don’t ask you to open your window. They pin you up against the car and hit you. And then they threaten you with deportation and call immigration.”
East Haven cops have a long history of targeting and brutalizing communities of color. In 1997, an East Haven police officer followed a 21-year-old unarmed black man named Malik Jones from East Haven to New Haven and shot him to death.
The year after Jones was murdered, newly elected Mayor Maturo appointed Gallo as chief. It was a questionable decision: Gallo had been a rising star officer in nearby New Haven, but known for brutish police tactics. According to the New Haven Independent, in 1990 he was demoted to a post in the city’s animal shelter as new leadership attempted to move toward a community policing model and reign in cops known for targeting residents of color.
In 2009, after years of intensified profiling and harassment of Latinos under Gallo’s leadership, the East Haven Police made the mistake of broadening their assault and arresting a local Catholic priest—a white man named Father James Manship—as he tried to record a group of police officers as they harassed the owners of My Country Store.
The arrest made headlines like nothing in the town had since Malik Jones was shot, and by September 2009, the Department of Justice had rolled into town to investigate.
Too Much Power
The police department under Gallo’s reign was out of control and beyond reproach. Firing a police chief is rarely easy, even for a mayor with the will to do so. In 2010, after the DOJ investigation began, then Mayor April Capone put Gallo on leave while the investigation proceeded. Capone wanted to fire Gallo but could not, according to a source close to city government who asked not to be named. “To fire a police chief is next to impossible,” said the source. “The just-cause statute and the union power is so tight and so strong that a mayor just can’t do it.”
In October 2010, pressure on the department grew when a Yale University Law School clinic filed a civil rights action on behalf of Manship, the two owners of My Country Store and seven other Latino plaintiffs who claimed to have been the victims of the East Haven Police Department’s abuse. The complaint lists as defendants the East Haven Police Department and two fifths of its active duty cops.
The Yale complaint paints a frightful picture of the police department that’s echoed by residents who live there. In one March 2009 incident described in the complaint, the same officer who regularly harassed customers at My Country Store pulled over four Latino men as they drove them down Main Street on their way to La Bamba’s.
According to the complaint, that officer screamed slurs at the men, pulled them from their car and with the help of another officer arrested them. When they arrived at the police station, one of the men asked why he’d been arrested and an officer replied by spraying him in the face with mace. The officer then proceeded to open the back door of the cruiser and punch the now blinded man in the face repeatedly as he pulled him to a cell. According to the police report, at least three other officers watched as the man was brutalized.
Later that night, the Yale complaint says, three of the arrested men overheard the police beating the fourth man. The three others feared they would be next.
On December 19, 2011, the Department of Justice released the findings of its two-year civil and criminal investigation of “allegations that EHPD officers engage in biased policing, unconstitutional searches and seizures, and the use of excessive force.”
The DOJ documented officers targeting Latino-owned businesses and issuing Latino drivers tickets disproportionately, often roughing them up before falsifying police reports to cover up police violence.
The federal investigation also expressed concerns that East Haven police were inappropriately enforcing immigration laws by inquiring into the immigration status of non-citizens and reporting them to federal immigration authorities without the legal authority to do so.
The East Haven Police Department “does not have an agreement with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” the report states. But nonetheless, the department “allowed its officers to engage in haphazard and uncoordinated immigration enforcement efforts to target Latino drivers for traffic stops … [as a] means for EHPD officers to harass and intimidate the Latino community.”
On January 18, a grand jury indicted four East Haven officers for conspiring to “injure, oppress, threaten, and intimidate various members of the East Haven community” and for use of “unreasonable force.”
All four men face jail sentences of over 10 years if found guilty.
Retiring police chief Gallo was not yet charged criminally by the feds, but at a press conference on Monday, his attorney admitted that his client is “Co-Conspirator 1” in the indictment and may face charges.
“My sense from the community is that there is a sense of vindication, that we have been listened to,” said Father Manship after he finished Mass on Sunday for the 800 Latino congregants of his church in nearby Fair Haven. “But nobody thinks this is over with.”
A Widespread Problem
Though the DOJ makes clear that the East Haven police abused their powers in enforcing immigration law, neither the federal indictment nor the Yale complaint address the impact of those efforts.
Even if East Haven’s lawlessness is fixed, questions remain that go far beyond its city limits. According to a number of advocates and attorneys in the East Haven area, the issue was not just that the local cops wanted to deport immigrants; it’s that federal immigration authorities obliged them, even as the DOJ was investigating the East Haven police.
John Lugo, an organizer with the New Haven group Unidad Latina en Accion told Colorlines.com that several of the group’s members and many others have been deported as a result of East Haven’s racist policing.
Michael Boyle, an attorney who practices immigration law in nearby North Haven, says that in the last couple of years he’s seen a number of immigrants who’ve been arrested by the East Haven police and then sent into deportation proceedings.
“ICE says it has more of a focus on people with criminal problems,” says Boyle, “but then the question is what kind of problems result in a call to ICE. In a place like East Haven, everything gets called in.”
And in a place like East Haven, virtually every Latino Colorlines.com interviewed had been profiled or arrested.
In July 2011, almost two years after the DOJ began investigating, Boyle says a young Ecuadoran man came into his office for immigration help. He’d been pulled over by the East Haven police and arrested for driving without proper registration. “The police called ICE and the next morning ICE showed up and told him he’d have to appear in immigration court.”
“It was one of these cases where he’d been staked out by the police at an Ecuadorian bakery. He was a really nice young man with a U.S.-citizen wife and he was targeted by the police there.”
Boyle decided to send the case over to the Yale law clinic, thinking that the man had been a victim of the very practices the clinic was litigating.
Ultimately, according to Boyle, the clinic succeeded in getting the man relief from deportation. “But,” he said, “had I taken the case and done the normal stuff without the civil rights claim, he’d be back in Mexico now.”
Another local immigration attorney, Glenn Formica, said he’d had a couple of cases from East Haven that resulted in deportation. Formica argued that even when ICE did not respond to calls from the East Haven Police over people picked up for simple traffic violations, the local police know what to charge immigrants with so that ICE will respond.
“Five years ago the cops in the area didn’t really think much about getting people deported,” said Formica. But as the federal government shifted its enforcement tactics to target local jails, “police departments that want to get people deported can do so pretty easily.”
“All you have to do is charge someone with the right thing. The East Haven police learned what to charge people with to get them deported.”
On Wednesday, clergy members in the East Haven area, including Father Manship, held a press conference to demand that the Connecticut state attorney make a full review of all convictions in the last four years based on arrests by the indicted East Haven officers. The clergy argue that any arrest colored by racial profiling or discrimination should be immediately vacated.
Yet some of those who were pegged with these convictions based on tainted arrests have already been deported.
According to John Lugo and some of the men gathered in La Bamba’s, ICE has just recently stopped picking people up from the East Haven Jail.
ICE did not answer Colorlines.com’s specific questions about whether the agency has continued to deport people from East Haven. An ICE spokesperson responded with the statement, “The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) take allegations of racial profiling and other complaints relating to civil rights and civil liberties violations very seriously.”
ICE may have backed off of East Haven in recent months—as it did in Maricopa County, Ariz. following the DOJ’s investigation of civil rights violations there—but what about the agency’s cooperation with the East Haven cops before the DOJ issued it’s report? And, in towns and cities around the country where local police are wise enough to avoid arresting social justice minded Catholic priests and therefore avoid federal investigation, it’s unlikely that ICE has any way to ensure it’s not deporting the victims of racial profiling and police misconduct.
ICE is rapidly expanding programs that use local police to enforce immigration laws. Mostly significantly, the Secure Communities program, which the Obama administration says will be fully operational in every jail around the country by 2013, automatically checks the immigration status of anyone booked by local police. The government claims that the program avoids racial profiling because it’s simply checking the immigration status of those already booked into jail. But that may be precisely the problem: the automated immigration check system can’t discern who is and who is not a victim of racial profiling.
Nearby New Haven has joined a growing cohort of counties and cities around the country who want to opt-out of the Secure Communities program. Mayor John DeStefano has warned that Secure Communities will undermine trust between local residents and the police. He and other city leaders have asked that ICE not implement the program in their city.
But the federal government has repeatedly said that localities can’t opt out. The result will be that every emerging Gallo, every East Haven police department, will now find it even easier to push their de jour undesirables into deportation.
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