(Updated, 5:45 p.m.)
At 10:49 a.m. today, a lawsuit was filed in federal court against the town of East Haven and police alleging that officers "engaged in a campaign of racial profiling against Latino men and women, singling them out for harassment and worse."
At a 2 p.m. press conference held on the New Haven Green, across from U.S. District Court where the suit was filed, lead attorney David Rosen said he is asking for unspecified punitive damages as well as for "injunctive relief" from alleged cop mistreatment of Latinos.
Town Attorney Patty Cofrancesco will handle the case. A message left for her this afternoon was not immediately returned.
This suit comes on the heels of a civil court judgment handed down last week awarding the On April 14, 1997, East Haven cop Robert Flodquist shot Jones to death after a high-speed pursuit from East Haven into New Haven. The complaint alleges that Jones was targeted because he was black. Attorney Hugh Keefe, representing the East Haven Police Department, said he will appeal the decision.
Meanwhile, the Department of Justice is investigating the police department for racial profiling, harassment of Latinos and other civil-rights violations. The feds issued a preliminary report to the town last spring, where it noted that the department lacks policies on the use of deadly force, a review process for police conduct and sufficient training as well as a host of other weaknesses.
Tuesday's lawsuit names 10 defendants: Chief Lenny Gallo, who's on administrative leave pending the DOJ's findings, and police officers Dennis Spaulding, David Cari, Jason Zullo, Vincent Ferrara, David Olson, Frank Montagna, Edward Lennon, Michael Sorbo and Cheryl Conyers.
Plaintiffs include East Haven residents Marcia Chacon and Wilfrido Matute, co-owners of My Country Store, Segundo Aguayza, Jose Luis Albarracin, Welington Salinas, John Espinosa, Guido Xavier Criollo, Edgar Torres and Yadanny Garcia. Also filing is Father James Manship of New Haven, whom East Haven cops arrested on Feb. 19. 2009, at My Country Store, while he responded to a police raid there. (Read the New Haven Independent's comprehensive and exclusive coverage of the event.)
Plaintiffs allege that they were verbally and at times physically abused by officers. They say they were Tasered, illegally arrested and systematically intimidated. They claim police raided their businesses and homes and disproportionately stopped Latinos to check licenses and registrations.
Yale law students who worked on the case reported finding that 60 percent of the 376 traffic tickets issued on Route 80 and Main Street from June 1, 2008, to Feb. 28, 2009, were issued to Latinos, while they constitute just 6 percent of the town's population.
Shop owner Marcia Chacon was the sole East Haven plaintiff to speak at Tuesday's press conference. She read aloud her statement in Spanish, while Yale law student Dermot Lynch repeated her words in English.
She detailed her interactions with East Haven cops from 2008 forward. Chacon and her husband opened My Country Store on Main Street in 1999. She told the press that her shop was successful. That she worked hard to build the business.
"But all this changed in 2008," she said.
Chacon said that's when police began to park behind her store waiting for her customers to leave. She claimed that police would write down shoppers' license plate numbers. Though she said her husband told police this activity was driving away customers, one officer said "he wanted Latinos to leave East Haven."
Chacon said her customers got scared to come to her shop causing sales to drop significantly. "We could not even pay our mortgages and utility bills," she said.
Before the press conference, attorney Rosen said while the lawsuit waits for trial, which can take years, he hopes to talk to town officials about making changes so Latinos and others will feel safer.
"We would be happy to sit down with the people of East Haven to help solve the problems with the department that have created a pattern of abuses," he said. Asked when he'd like to start the talks, Rosen said, "Tomorrow."
Rosen said the case could be settled out of court, but it's not just about money.
"It's possible to have a resolution that involves judicial oversight (without a trial). We would be very pleased to settle by consent of the town and plaintiffs," he said. "We think court supervision is in all probability necessary."
At the tail end of the press event, Rosen was asked if this lawsuit is reflective of the East Haven community as a whole or just the police.
"It isn't the community. It's a lack of leadership in the police department," the civil rights lawyer said. He said he used to live adjacent to East Haven and played ball there as a kid. "It's not a few bad eggs (on the force). It's a structural problem."
Rosen said Latinos are still afraid, even with the ongoing federal probe which has put the issue on a national stage. "That's a problem that goes beyond Chief Gallo, he said.
Plaintiffs have been instructed not to make public comments about the case.
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