NEW HAVEN, Conn. – The mayor of a working-class city roiled by allegations of police discrimination against Hispanics faced scathing criticism Wednesday from officials including the governor for saying he "might have tacos" as a way to do something for the community.
The comments by East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo brought unwanted attention to the leadership of the New Haven suburb, where four police officers were arrested Tuesday by the FBI on charges including deprivation of rights and obstruction of justice. The mayor was also criticized for his recent reappointment of police Chief Leonard Gallo, who was apparently referred to in the indictment as a co-conspirator.
The four officers are accused of waging a campaign of harassment against Latino residents and businesses, including assaulting people while they were handcuffed and intimidating people who tried to investigate or report misconduct allegations. All four have pleaded not guilty.
The taco comment came as Maturo, a Republican, was being interviewed late Tuesday by a reporter from New York's WPIX-TV, Mario Diaz, who asked, "What are you doing for the Latino community today?"
Maturo's response: "I might have tacos when I go home; I'm not quite sure yet."
He initially defended his response and said it was being unfairly twisted. But he later apologized, saying he'd had a long day of interviews.
Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said the comments are "repugnant."
"They represent either a horrible lack of judgment or worse, an underlying insensitivity to our Latino community that is unacceptable. Being tired is no excuse. He owes an apology to the community, and more importantly, he needs to show what he's going to do to repair the damage he's done. And he needs to do it today," Malloy said.
Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra, a native of Puerto Rico, said he was "disgusted" by Maturo's comment. East Haven Democratic Town Committee Chairman Gene Ruocco called for Maturo's resignation.
The comment "goes to the root of the racial profiling allegations here in East Haven," Ruocco said in a statement. "Everyone knows the seriousness of this matter and for him, as the leader of our community, to say something so utterly insensitive is a complete disgrace."
East Haven resident Marcia Chacon said she and other Latinos in her community were offended by Maturo's comment.
"This is an insult against us," she said. "I thought 'Wow, here we are in East Haven, and this is the person who is supposed to help us.'"
Racial profiling complaints surged in recent years in East Haven, a predominantly white suburb on Long Island Sound where the Hispanic population more than doubled in size over a decade to 10.3 percent of its 28,000 people. Last month, a lengthy civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice concluded there was a pattern of biased policing in East Haven, where only one of the roughly 50 police officers speaks Spanish.
Neighboring New Haven, in contrast, has drawn national attention for its sympathetic approach to immigrants, including becoming the first city in the nation to issue municipal identification cards for all residents — including illegal immigrants — to provide services such as banking and using the library.
The indictment of the East Haven police officers says a leader in the police department, described only as co-conspirator 1, blocked efforts by the police commission to investigate misconduct allegations. That refers to Chief Leonard Gallo, according to his attorney, Jon Einhorn, who denied that Gallo blocked the investigation and said it was unfair for him to be mentioned when he is not charged.
The allegations show federal authorities are concerned not just with the actions of the four police officers but also with the wider culture, said Jeffrey Meyer, a law professor at Quinnipiac University and a former federal prosecutor.
"The significance of the allegations against co-conspirator 1 go to the overall tolerance and permissiveness of this police department with respect to the abuses committed by the indicted officers," Meyer said.
The investigation was continuing, but experts said federal authorities sometimes don't charge a person named as a co-conspirator.
"He's probably losing some sleep," Stan Twardy, a defense attorney and former U.S. attorney for Connecticut, said of Gallo. "The uncertainty of it is going to be uncomfortable for him."
Maturo is a lifelong East Haven resident and Republican who was mayor from 1997 to 2007 and re-elected again in the fall.
After taking office Nov. 19, he 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 Tuesday. "We have a great police department."
The Rev. James Manship, a priest at St. Rose of Lima Church in New Haven who has advocated for East Haven's Latinos, said he was incredulous that Gallo was welcomed back.
"I remain absolutely dumbfounded on how the mayor would reinstate Chief Gallo, who was at the helm of the police department when the culture and these things were happening," said Manship, who was arrested in 2009 while videotaping East Haven police officers to document harassment complaints as officers removed license plates from the wall of a Hispanic couple's store.
Maturo released a statement Wednesday to express his "sincerest apologies" to East Haven and its Latino residents and business owners for the taco comment, asking residents to "have faith in me and our community as we address the challenges arising out of the past days' events."
"Unfortunately, I let the stress of the situation get the best of me and inflamed what is already a serious and unfortunate situation," he said. "I regret my insensitive comment and realize that it is my job to lead by example."
Associated Press writer Michael Melia contributed to this report from Hartford.