EAST HAVEN, Conn. – The arrests of four police officers accused of tyrannizing Latinos could mark the start of a bigger scandal in this working-class suburb, where the FBI is targeting additional suspects. The state is preparing for the possibility of widespread arrests that could cripple the town's police department.
Federal prosecutors have urged witnesses to come forward with details of abuses in East Haven, which was rocked by last week's arrests of the officers. The FBI described them as a "cancerous cadre" that subjected Hispanics to beatings and false arrests.
In a community that saw many Hispanics move away at the height of the abuse complaints, one obstacle for investigators is finding victims who are not deterred by fear of police or, in some cases, concerns about their residency status. The officers preyed on illegal immigrants who were unlikely to report abuse, according to the indictment.
"Many people are afraid to talk. We have to be careful," said Wilfrido Matute, the owner of My Country Store, the site of many incidents of alleged harassment of its largely Hispanic clientele.
The case adds to a history of friction between police and minorities in East Haven, an increasingly diverse community of 28,000 people that was nearly all white a generation ago. A separate civil rights investigation released last month found a deep-rooted pattern of discriminatory policing, and the town is under pressure from the U.S. Justice Department to make reforms.
For the police department, a more immediate concern is the prospect of more arrests.
The Connecticut governor's liaison on criminal justice policy, Mike Lawlor, said the state is prepared to step in and bolster the East Haven police department if necessary.
"State police are continuing to monitor the possibility that a significant number of police officers will be indicted," he said. "It seems like that is going to happen."
The police chief, Leonard Gallo, is apparently referred to by the federal grand jury as an unnamed co-conspirator, accused of blocking efforts by the police commission to investigate misconduct. His attorney has denied the allegations and criticized prosecutors for including the reference to him when he is not charged.
The Hispanic community grew to 10 percent of the town's population by 2010 as immigrants from Ecuador and Mexico, including many who had lived across the town line in New Haven, moved here for the peaceful, small-town setting. Many left amid a rise in profiling allegations, and while Latino businesses are now bouncing back, some say police are still widely feared.
Mario Marin, who testified before the grand jury in Bridgeport, said he knows of many who have refused to testify and even moved out of the state to avoid the police.
But Marin, a native of Ecuador who is pursuing U.S. residency, said he was eager to tell his story. His brother, Moises Marin, was videotaping alleged profiling outside Moises' restaurant, La Bamba, in November 2008 when an officer threw his brother to the ground, causing a cut to his chin and repeatedly kicking him while his hands were handcuffed behind his back.
Mario Marin said he was frozen by fear as stood by and watched, knowing police could lock him up away from his family if he defended his brother. But the feelings of guilt kept him awake at night for months.
"I am happy they are paying for their wrongs," said Marin, 40. "I agree with the laws of the United States, but not the laws that the police make up themselves."
That beating is among the crimes attributed in the indictment to officer Dennis Spaulding, described by prosecutors as the most dangerous defendant and barred from entering East Haven while he is free on bond. He and the other defendants — Sgt. John Miller, David Cari and Jason Zullo — face charges including deprivation of rights and obstruction of justice.
The Rev. James Manship, a priest at St. Rose of Lima Church in New Haven, who has advocated for East Haven's Latinos, said the arrests do little to address the rift between police and the Hispanic community.
"While some may feel the arrests somehow bring this to a conclusion rapidly, I don't think that would be honest," Manship said. "We need to recognize there is an incredible amount of anxiety for a large part of community."
The East Haven police department of some 50 officers has come under scrutiny for previous 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.
The mayor, Joseph Maturo Jr., says he has taken steps toward reform including the appointment of a new police advisory committee and the publishing of civilian complaint forms in both English and Spanish. His efforts toward healing the rift were set back, however, by his poorly received quip to a television reporter last week that he might "eat tacos" as a way of doing something for the Hispanic community. He has apologized.