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Feds: Two Connecticut cops found guilty of civil rights violations against Latinos

By Lorenzo Ferrigno, CNN
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Tue October 22, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Four East Haven officers were arrested in 2012 after a federal investigation into racial profiling
  • Two had already pleded guilty to separate charges
  • The remaining two were convicted Monday and will be sentenced in January
  • Prosecutor: The cops' behavior "chips away at the public's trust in ... law enforcement"

(CNN) -- Two Connecticut police officers were found guilty Monday of violating the civil rights of Latinos after a federal investigation uncovered a culture of bias within the East Haven Police Department, according to prosecutors.

Officer Dennis Spaulding and former officer David Cari were convicted of conspiring to violate and violating the civil rights of Latinos in the East Haven community, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney of the District of Connecticut.

Spaulding and Cari worked together to "injure, threaten and intimidate" Latinos in the Connecticut community, according to prosecutors. Evidence presented during the month-long trial showed that the men made unlawful arrests, including the arrest of a Catholic priest, at times using excessive force.

The men later conspired to cover up evidence of their conduct by falsifying reports and blocking an investigation, prosecutors said.

"No one is above the law, and no one is beneath the law's protection," acting U.S. Attorney Deirdre M. Daly said Monday. "The illegal behavior detailed during the course of this trial chips away at the public's trust in all members of law enforcement, the vast majority of whom serve honorably and bravely each and every day."

Cari and Spaulding, along with two other East Haven police officers -- John Miller and Jason Zullo -- were arrested in January 2012 following a federal investigation into racial profiling in the city.

"They behaved like bullies with badges," Janice Fedarcyk, assistant FBI director in New York, said in 2012.

"For some in our community, today's verdict provides a sense of vindication and closure. For others, especially our Police family, it is a difficult and sad occasion," East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo said in a statement Monday. "What is clear is that for all of our residents, it is an opportunity to close a difficult chapter in our Town's past and move forward as one, unified community."

Maturo said the city has made several changes since the arrests, such as opening up the police department, holding community meetings, offering cultural sensitivity training to town employees and providing resourced for residents with limited English proficiency.

The indictment that led to the trial cited instances including an occasion on January 21, 2009, when Spaulding and Zullo assaulted two individuals they had arrested under false pretenses, slamming their heads against the station's cell block walls.

The indictment cited a similar incident in which Miller struck a detainee who was handcuffed after the detainee was propped up by two other patrol officers.

The 2012 arrests came just weeks after a scathing Department of Justice report, derived from an investigation that began in September 2009, accusing the town's police of engaging in "discriminatory policing against Latinos."

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

The letter provided an example of a particular officer's stops, 40.5% of which were of Latino drivers.

Overall, the investigation found that 19.9% of traffic stops made by East Haven police were against Latino drivers, concluding it "shows pervasive discrimination against Latinos on every level of EHPD traffic enforcement activity."

The report also accused some officers of conducting unauthorized immigration investigations.

It mentioned "numerous incident reports" in which officers contacted Immigration and Customs Enforcement to check on the status or seek an immigration detention of a Latino.

Investigators said the tactic was "used to harass and intimidate Latinos rather than pursue legitimate law enforcement objectives."

Police Chief Leonard Gallo retired in February 2012 amid controversy after the arrests were made.

The controversy spread beyond the police department to the mayor's office. After being asked by a reporter in 2012 what he'd do for the Latino community in light of the officers' arrest, Maturo said that "I might have tacos when I get home, I'm not quite sure yet."

Cari and Spaulding are set to be sentenced on January 21, 2014.

Miller pleaded guilty to a civil rights violation by use of unreasonable force during the course of an arrest in September 2012. Zullo pleaded guilty to one count of obstruction in October 2012, according to the U.S. attorney's office.

Both Miller and Zullo are awaiting sentencing.

Connecticut mayor apologizes for 'taco' comment

CNN's Susan Candiotti and Patricia Pedraza contributed to this report.

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