BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – Four police officers, including the president of the local police union, were arrested Tuesday by the FBI on charges that they used excessive force against illegal immigrants and covered up abuses in a New Haven suburb where a federal investigation found life was made miserable for Hispanics.
The East Haven officers assaulted people while they were handcuffed, unlawfully searched Latino businesses and harassed and intimidated people, including advocates, witnesses and other officers who tried to investigate or report misconduct or abuse the officers committed, the federal indictment said.
Police treatment of Hispanics in the seaside city of East Haven has been under federal scrutiny since 2009, when the U.S. Department of Justice launched a civil rights probe that found a pattern of discrimination and biased policing.
The arrests were welcomed by local Hispanic business owners, including Luis Rodriguez, an immigrant from Ecuador who had complained of harassment by police at his Los Amigos Grocery store.
"They should have to pay, not with many years, but enough to make an example of them. They should not abuse their power," Rodriguez said. "All I ever wanted was to be left in peace."
Officers Dennis Spaulding, David Cari and Jason Zullo and Sgt. John Miller, president of the police union, are each charged with conspiracy against rights, which carries a maximum prison term of 10 years. Some also face charges including deprivation of rights, obstruction of justice and use of unreasonable force.
All four defendants pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport, and three were released on bond. The highest bond amount — $300,000 — was set for Spaulding, who was described by prosecutors as facing the most serious charges. Zullo was ordered to remain in custody until another hearing Thursday because he was not immediately able to post bond.
The U.S. attorney for Connecticut, David Fein, said the criminal investigation is still looking at other people and urged tipsters to contact the FBI.
The profiling claims emerged with a dramatic demographic shift in East Haven, a predominantly Italian-American suburb of 28,000 people that was 10.3 percent Hispanic in 2010, compared with only 4.4 percent in 2000. Latino business owners said rough treatment by police drove away many of the newcomers from Mexico and Ecuador, although business has recovered in recent months as residents report less profiling.
At My Country Store on Main Street, where the defendants are accused of carrying out illegal searches and a false arrest, owner Marcia Chacon said she is grateful for the tranquility.
"Things have gotten much better," she said. "Business has started to come back."
Federal officials say the officers denied Latino residents and their advocates the right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures, the right to not be arrested and detained without probable cause and the right to not be arrested on false and misleading evidence.
"In simple terms, these defendants behaved like bullies with badges," said Janice Fedarcyk, assistant director of the New York office of the FBI.
Zullo described taking joy in singling out Latinos, authorities said, telling Spaulding in a 2008 exchange quoted by the indictment that he liked harassing drivers and referred to "persons who have drifted to this country on rafts made of chicken wings" and living in East Haven.
Miller repeatedly slapped a man handcuffed in his car, while Spaulding threw a man to the ground and repeatedly kicked him while he was handcuffed, according to the indictment.
Mayor Joseph Maturo said the four men were arrested around 6 a.m. Tuesday at their homes and at the police department.
Miller's lawyer, Donald Cretella, said his client has been honored with awards and risked his life in shootouts.
"John Miller is a hero in East Haven," he said. "He's decorated. He's a wonderful family man. Hopefully, we'll clear his name."
Spaulding's attorney, Frank Riccio Jr., said his client is an exemplary police officer.
"At this early stage it's our position Mr. Spaulding is not guilty of the charges," he said. "He's been nothing but an exemplary police officer. That's why this is shocking."
Attorneys for Cari and Zullo declined to comment.
The indictment says Miller reported to a police department leader described as a co-conspirator who blocked efforts by the police commission to investigate Miller's misconduct. That refers to Chief Leonard Gallo, according to his attorney, Jon Einhorn, who denied that Gallo blocked the investigation.
"It's unfair that he is mentioned in this regard when he isn't even indicted," Einhorn said.
The indictment also accuses unnamed union leaders of intimidation and interference to protect the officers, including a depiction of a rat posted on a bulletin board and a cartoon saying "You know what we do with snitches?" in a police locker room.
Maturo, who took office Nov. 19, reinstated Gallo as police chief. Gallo had been on paid administrative leave since federal authorities began investigating in 2010.
"I stand behind the police department," Maturo said. "We have a great police department."
The Department of Justice, which has pledged to reach out to the police department to work on reforms, said last month that the police department engaged in a pattern of discrimination against Latino residents. Investigators said their probe was complicated by efforts to interfere with witnesses and by police silence.
Nearly half or a third of the drivers pulled over by certain officers were Latino, and the number of Latinos pulled over by certain squads was "extraordinarily high," said Roy Austin Jr., deputy assistant attorney general for the civil rights division. Latinos who were stopped for minor violations were subjected to harsher punishments, such as arrest or vehicle towing, than were non-Latinos.
The East Haven Police Department, of some 50 officers, has come under scrutiny previously for civil rights issues. A federal jury ruled in 2003 that a white officer used excessive force and violated the rights of a black man he fatally shot after a chase.
Some officers involved in that case kept their jobs and were promoted, and there was no evidence that anyone received training to prevent similar confrontations in the future, Austin said.
Associated Press writer Michael Melia in Hartford contributed to this report.