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Mayor: East Haven, Connecticut, police chief to retire amid controversy

By Ashley Hayes, CNN
updated 4:42 PM EST, Mon January 30, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chief Leonard Gallo's attorney says his retirement is not an admission of wrongdoing
  • Four East Haven officers were arrested last week as part of a federal investigation
  • A Latino community member says Gallo cultivated a "racist and dishonest police force"
  • East Haven's mayor recently apologized for remarks on Latinos some called insensitive

(CNN) -- East Haven, Connecticut, Police Chief Leonard Gallo will retire after the arrests of four police officers for their alleged role in the mistreatment of Latinos, Mayor Joseph Maturo said Monday.

The arrests stemmed from a federal investigation into profiling in the city, with some critics suggesting that Gallo fostered or at least overlooked a culture of ethnic prejudice within his department. The chief's lawyer acknowledged Monday that his client faces a federal lawsuit and could himself be charged, though he said Gallo is innocent, having never profiled or targeted Latinos.

Gallo's retirement is effective February 3, Maturo said, adding that a search for East Haven's next police chief will begin immediately.

"While Chief Gallo's departure comes at a difficult time, it provides a unique opportunity for the department to move forward with new leadership, an opportunity for the town to move forward with the healing that is necessary given recent events, and most importantly, an opportunity for the entire East Haven community to move forward as a unified group to embrace the changes that will follow," the mayor said.

Maturo himself got caught up in the controversy when he said last week -- after being asked what he'd do for the Latino community in light of the officers' arrests -- that "I might have tacos when I get home, I'm not quite sure yet."

Some criticized this remark as insensitive and derogatory, and about 500 tacos were delivered to Maturo's office after a Latino activist group launched a text-for-tacos campaign to draw attention to the comment.

The mayor has twice apologized since then, saying his words were largely a product of stress.

On Monday, Maturo was largely complimentary of East Haven's outgoing police chief, describing him as "a devoted public servant who performed admirably in both his personal and professional life. His decision to retire at this time is a selfless act, designed to assist in the healing process."

The police chief's attorney, Jonathan Einhorn, said the 65-year-old Gallo had been considering retirement for a while and himself made the decision to step down. This move was not an admission of wrongdoing, and should not be viewed as such, the lawyer said.

Einhorn told reporters at a Monday news conference that Gallo decided to retire now in order "not to be a distracting element in East Haven's effort to rehabilitate its image, both upon its citizens and the general public."

Gallo did not attend the news conference.

East Haven police Sgt. John Miller and officers David Cari, Dennis Spaulding and Jason Zullo were arrested last week. According to a federal indictment, the four allegedly conspired to "injure, oppress, threaten and intimidate various members of the East Haven community" -- profiling Latino residents during traffic stops, performing illegal searches and harassing Latino business owners and their advocates.

The men allegedly threatened and assaulted detainees, made false arrests -- including a local clergy member -- and later conspired to cover up evidence of their conduct by falsifying reports and blocking an investigation, prosecutors said.

"They behaved like bullies with badges," said Janice Fedarcyk, assistant FBI director in New York.

Gallo is named as a co-conspirator in the case, his attorney told reporters Monday, and the chief is facing a federal civil lawsuit as well. Einhorn said he did not know if federal authorities will arrest Gallo, but acknowledged his client could face criminal charges.

"He is not guilty of any wrongdoing in either the civil action or potentially in any criminal action," Einhorn said. "He should not be arrested, and if arrested he will be acquitted of any charges."

"Chief Gallo has never engaged in, participated in or condoned racial profiling of any nature whatsoever," the lawyer added.

Community leaders applauded Gallo's retirement on Monday.

"Gallo cultivated a racist and dishonest police force," said the Rev. James Manship of St. Rose of Lima Church, a plaintiff in the civil suit. The state's attorney should review the convictions of those arrested by the four officers "and seek to vacate those tainted by racial bias or other unconstitutional conduct."

Angel Fernandez-Chavero, a leader of St. Rose's pastoral council, added, "Gallo's position at the top of the East Haven Police Department signaled to the brave victims who risked everything to testify and to the Latino community that their dignity was not respected."

The police chief was placed on administrative leave by former Mayor April Capone Almon in March 2010 in response to the U.S. Justice Department investigation, according to the Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic at Yale Law School. That organization represents the plaintiffs in the civil suit against the department.

Mauro reinstated Gallo as chief in November, the clinic said.

In a letter to Maturo, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez said the alleged discrimination was "deeply rooted in the (police) department's culture," citing statistical analysis that Latinos had been "intentionally targeted" for traffic stops.

On one occasion in January 2009, Spaulding and Zullo allegedly assaulted two people they had arrested under false pretenses, slamming their heads against the walls of the police station's cell block, authorities said. In another incident, Miller allegedly struck a detainee who was handcuffed after being propped up by two other patrol officers.

The men also thwarted a police commission inquiry into their alleged misconduct, authorities said, calling on the support of local union leaders to block and intimidate municipal investigators.

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