EAST HAVEN, Conn. – Santiago Malave has worked law enforcement jobs in Connecticut for more than four decades, but as a Puerto Rican, he says he cannot drive through his own town without worrying about police harassing him.
Malave, a probation officer who works in New Haven, says the racial abuse is so bad that he only crosses the town line into East Haven to go home. He and his wife are now preparing to sell their house and move, joining an exodus of Hispanics who say police have hassled them with traffic stops, false arrests and even jailhouse beatings.
The Justice Department has started a civil rights investigation, and the FBI recently opened a criminal probe. But that has not changed things on Main Street, where restaurants and stores that cater to Hispanics are going out of business.
If the goal of police was to ruin East Haven's Hispanic community, some grudgingly say they have succeeded.
"We can't tolerate the town anymore," said Malave, 64. "For us to leave our beautiful home is something that hurts, but we can't deal with these people."
Racial profiling allegations began swirling about two years ago in East Haven, a predominantly Italian-American seaside suburb of about 28,000 people 70 miles northeast of New York City. Hispanics make up only about 7 percent of the population, but their numbers had been growing as the peaceful, small-town setting and thriving businesses attracted newcomers from Mexico and Ecuador.
Police Chief Leonard Gallo, who is on administrative leave, has denied the allegations. The office of acting Police Chief Gaetano Nappi referred calls to Town Attorney Patricia Cofrancesco, who did not respond to phone messages seeking comment.
Hispanic business owners say police made a practice of parking outside their shops and stopping any Latinos. Some who complained say they faced retaliation.
Luis Rodriguez, an immigrant from Ecuador who owns the Los Amigos Grocery, said he was arrested two months ago and jailed for five days after a woman pointed out to police that his 3-year-old son was unsupervised on the sidewalk outside the store. He said police were out for revenge because his wife had been videotaping them. He was charged with child neglect; the case is still pending.
Meanwhile, his store is up for sale. Ecuadoreans used to travel from as far as Massachusetts for jalapenos, Ecuadorean sodas and other specialty products. But Rodriguez said police have scared customers away by threatening to alert immigration authorities if they ever saw them in town again.
"If I had known the police in East Haven are so much trouble I never would have invested so much money here," said Rodriguez, 41, who has put more than $120,000 into the store.
The Justice Department's civil rights branch began investigating the police force in September 2009. It is still looking into alleged discriminatory policing, but it identified preliminary concerns in April over issues including outdated policies and a lack of clear guidance on the use of force.
The town's mayor, April Capone, revealed this month that the FBI was gathering evidence for potential criminal prosecutions of some of the officers. Her office declined to comment.
Dermot Lynch, a student intern with Yale Law School's Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic, said the problem goes beyond a few rogue officers.
"This is a systemwide leadership failure. It's going to need widespread reform," said Lynch, whose group filed a lawsuit in October on behalf of nine immigrants who say East Haven police abused them with beatings and unwarranted use of a stun gun. It also quotes officers using ethnic slurs.
Until recently, East Haven was considered a refuge by Hispanics, a suburb with ample parking and less crime than New Haven.
Malave, who has lived here since 1977, said he never had problems before late 2008 when police responded to a report by his wife that some money was missing. The couple had begun to argue. Malave, who was asked his nationality, said police arrested him for disorderly conduct the minute he said he was born in Puerto Rico.
"I tried to talk to the sergeant, but he said, 'You spics don't have rights here,'" said Malave, a former New Haven police officer.
Hispanics in East Haven say more than half their population — estimated at 1,900 by the Census Bureau — has moved away.
Mario Marin, who was at work one recent afternoon in his family's empty restaurant, La Bamba, said two of his siblings moved to nearby Waterbury and another brother returned to Ecuador. He said one brother, like other Hispanic property owners, lost a house to foreclosure after his tenants moved away.
"They destroyed our future here," Marin said of police. He said even out-of-town diners have stopped coming since officers launched raids on the restaurant's parking lot, towing away any cars with out-of-state license plates.
Marin and others said run-ins with police have been less common since police came under federal scrutiny. But activist John Lugo of Latinos United in Action, who helped organize a march against racial profiling last year, said his group still advises Hispanics to steer clear of East Haven.