EAST HAVEN, Conn. (AP) – A Connecticut town whose police force had a history of mistreating Latinos has transformed itself into a model for improving relations between police and the community, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Tuesday.
Lynch spoke with community members, police officers and federal authorities in East Haven High School, highlighting efforts by the town's police to improve ties with residents after a federal probe found discrimination and bias by town officers.
"It is our hope that cities and jurisdictions that are still struggling with these issues ... will look at East Haven and take heart and see that, in fact, things can improve," the attorney general said.
In the first stop on the six-city tour in Cincinnati in May, Lynch called mistrust between communities and law enforcement "the issue of our times." After deaths of black men at the hands of police in Baltimore, South Carolina and Ferguson, Missouri, the issue is in the national forefront, she said.
Justice Department officials say Lynch's tour builds on President Barack Obama's pledge to improve police-community relations. Recommendations by a task force Obama created in December include more community policing and officer training.
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Latinos in East Haven and a federal monitor have said there has been a remarkable turnaround at the police department since 2012, when local officials signed a consent decree that required wide-ranging reforms. The agreement resolved allegations by the U.S. Department of Justice that officers regularly used excessive force against Latinos and retaliated against those who witnessed police misconduct or criticized officers.
In 2013, officials in the shoreline town of nearly 30,000 residents — where about one in 10 people is Latino — agreed to pay $450,000 to settle a civil rights lawsuit by Latino residents. The lawsuit named about 20 defendants and alleged repeated abuses by police officers, including false arrests, assault, illegal searches and obstruction of justice.
A separate federal criminal investigation led to the arrests of four East Haven police officers in 2012. The officers were convicted of mistreating Latinos and others or obstructing justice. They received prison sentences of four months to five years.
East Haven Deputy Police Chief Ed Lennon said the department has taken a number of steps including holding regular community meetings, having school-based officers check on children and creating a citizens' police academy. He also said the department has made efforts to be more transparent, including requiring all officers to wear body cameras.
"I think it's a great opportunity for the police department and the town as a whole to show we've had a complete turnaround," Lennon said of Tuesday's events.