2 Connecticut Police Officers Accused Of Intimidating Latinos

Two police officers from East Haven, Conn., face federal charges that they conspired to threaten and intimidate members of the town's Latino community. Prosecutors say the men harassed people, made unreasonable searches and seizures, and used unreasonable force.

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Two Connecticut police officers are on trial in federal court this week. They're accused of harassing and intimidating Latino residents in the city of East Haven. The police department there has been working to change a culture of discrimination. Jeff Cohen of our member station WNPR has the story.

JEFF COHEN, BYLINE: Customers are streaming into the Guti'z Bakery for lunch - soups, stews, fried fish, empanadas. Behind the counter is Tania Chacon. From here, she can look out of the store's glass windows and see across the street where she says the East Haven police used to park their cars so often that it seemed that the bakery had its own security. Except Chacon says officers weren't protecting customers. They were targeting them.

TANIA CHACON: (Through Translator) They wouldn't even start their cars, and they were parked right out front like those cars now, and the police would pull behind them and park. They didn't have any pretext. Nothing. I think it was simply because they saw Hispanics, they assumed that no one had a license.

COHEN: But that was five years ago. Now, things are different.

CHACON: (Foreign language spoken)

COHEN: She says there's been a total change and that police don't bother people at all anymore. In 2009, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division began to investigate. It eventually found that the East Haven Police Department violated the Constitution by systematically discriminating against Latinos. It also found that the department's leadership intentionally ignored the misconduct. The town and the federal government eventually reached an agreement on the findings, and the police department, with a new chief and an independent overseer, is working on reforms.

Meanwhile, two of the department's officers have pleaded guilty to related criminal charges. Two more, David Cari and Dennis Spaulding, go on trial this week. They're charged with civil rights violations, including making unreasonable searches and seizures and arresting Latinos without probable cause.

ANGEL FERNANDEZ-CHAVERO: Hopefully, we're coming close to something of a conclusion from what was going on since mid-2008.

COHEN: That's Angel Fernandez-Chavero. He's a lay leader at the St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in New Haven. The church is the spiritual home for many of the region's Latinos.

FERNANDEZ-CHAVERO: Things are better in that I don't have to worry about driving to Guti'z Bakery and getting profiled and maybe getting beaten up. That's how things are better. Does the community have a complete and unquestioned sense of trust toward the police department? Absolutely not.

COHEN: But to say things are better implies that they were bad to begin with. Hugh Keefe doesn't buy that. He's been the trial attorney for the town of East Haven for 30 years.

HUGH KEEFE: They have never been required to prove the accusations that they have made against either the East Haven police department or the individual police officers in a court. The only thing they've done is have press releases. They have given press releases to sympathetic media. They have given television interviews, radio interviews like this unchallenged, completely unchallenged.

COHEN: East Haven's mayor and police chief declined to comment. But Keefe says the town entered into an agreement with the federal government to reform the police force as a way of calling a truce, not because it admitted any wrongdoing. And when it comes to the criminal cases against officers Cari and Spaulding, he doubts prosecutors have enough for a conviction.

KEEFE: Anybody can make an accusation against anybody saying anything. That's one thing. It's quite another to go into a courtroom and prove it.

COHEN: That's what the government will try and do this week. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Cohen in Hartford.

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