EAST HAVEN, Conn. • For Marcia Chacon, business is better, and she no longer worries about her patrons on Main Street being stopped, even assaulted, by police for no apparent reason.
Three years ago, the federal government began imposing reforms on the police department and local government in this classic New England town that has undergone an influx of Hispanic immigrants. The experiences of Chacon and other East Haven residents should elicit both hope and caution for residents of Ferguson, which also faces a future of change overseen by the Justice Department.
“Now it is different. It is better,” said Chacon. “We have better communication with police, and they are very nice.”
But Chacon, owner of My Country Grocery and a restaurant and a bar next door, admits she worries about what will happen after the federal monitors leave.
Down Main Street, another restaurant owner, Pedro Gutierrez, said that after he opened his business in 2009, police sat outside his store, Gutiz, stopped customers and seemed like an enemy.
Now, after six years, he considers police officers his friends.
More speak Spanish and stop by to grab a bite and talk, and Gutierrez allowed them to view his security video during a recent investigation. The struggle, and the remedy, are an affirmation of why he left Ecuador to come to the United States, he said.
“That is how I know this is a good country,” Gutierrez said of the changes imposed by the Justice Department. “They follow the law.”
A stark turn
Two years into a consent decree with the Justice Department, East Haven — once in the national news for police harassment of immigrants — is among the best in Connecticut in not showing racial or ethnic biases in its policing, according to a state study released this month.
Sitting on Long Island Sound between the Quinnipiac River and Lake Saltonstall, East Haven is a town of roughly 29,000 people that dates to the 17th century. Its neighbor, New Haven, is better known as the site of Yale University.
Some 80 miles northeast of New York City, East Haven features neighborhoods of closely clustered, modest houses, a traditional town square and the 241-year-old Old Stone Church, giving it an old Yankee patina. Once known as the “Iron Works Village” for its manufacturing past, its neighborhoods are still predominantly white. But change has been brewing, in part because of friction between the police and a growing Latino community that sparked federal intervention.
The town’s “agreement for effective and constitutional policing” with the Justice Department will cost an estimated $3 million over four years. Some say that underestimates the cost of hiring new officers, training and defending civil lawsuits.
East Haven’s is one of nine consent decrees the Justice Department has entered into with local police under Attorney General Eric Holder. East Haven and Ferguson are close in size, although there are differences, including the fact that Ferguson is majority-black.
The incident that sparked federal involvement in Ferguson was the shooting death of a black teenager, Michael Brown, by white police Officer Darren Wilson. Wilson was determined to have used reasonable force by federal and county investigators, but the Justice Department in a separate investigation found that Ferguson police and courts had violated black citizens’ civil rights. The city has hired Illinois attorney Dan K. Webb to help negotiate the terms of a consent decree with the Justice Department.
In East Haven, the arrest of a white Catholic priest, the Rev. James Manship of the St. Rose of Lima Parish, while filming alleged police brutality against Hispanic customers in Chacon’s store sparked federal involvement. The consent decree and the successful prosecution of four East Haven police officers for civil rights violations followed.
Despite those differences, there are lessons for Ferguson as it responds to demands for reform contained in a scathing Justice Department report alleging that its police and courts violated civil rights and used fines and penalties to raise revenue.
The reforms instigated by the Justice Department in East Haven have received a boost from two key appointees: the new police chief and the “joint compliance expert” in charge of monitoring the reform agreement.
As in Ferguson, where Police Chief Thomas Jackson resigned in the wake of the critical report, the previous police chief in East Haven also resigned.
The new police chief, Brent Larrabee, and the agreement monitors (initially Kathleen O’Toole and now Rafael Ruiz) have been widely praised, despite what some residents say was initial resistance to the reforms from the town’s political hierarchy.
O’Toole, Boston’s first female police commissioner, formed her own consulting firm after leaving that force and oversaw East Haven’s compliance until she became Seattle’s police chief last summer.
“The monitor is critically important,” Manship said. “The monitor has got to be right on top of this, and to have somebody who was in law enforcement, somebody who understands demographic challenges and shifts in population and changes in policing styles, is crucial.”
O’Toole’s supporters said she understood the importance that the monitor be viewed independently from the police and the Justice Department.
“From the moment she started, she had a way of working well with both sides,” said John Hughes, chief of the Civil Division of the U.S. attorney’s office in Connecticut. “She wasn’t considered a DOJ person, she wasn’t considered East Haven’s person, and both sides could talk to her independently.”
Similar praise has been directed at Larrabee, who arrived in East Haven in 2012 after the embattled previous chief, Leonard Gallo, resigned. His appointment “has been very important” in moving on, said Hernando Diosa, a community activist and editor at a Spanish-language newspaper, who served on the search committee that recommended Larrabee.
Larrabee, who was police chief in several Massachusetts cities before coming to East Haven, was last month given the 2015 Distinguished Chief Award by the Police Commissioners Association of Connecticut.
Larrabee’s appointment, along with the successful prosecution of the four officers for civil rights violations, sent a strong signal.
“We think there has been significant progress” under Larrabee, said Deirdre M. Daly, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut. “There is a new chief, a number of these police officers were disciplined and are now either gone or have faced significant discipline. There has also been a big effort to improve community engagement, and that has also been successful.”
Larrabee and Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr. declined to be interviewed, saying they have too many requests to start granting them. In his annual State of the Town address in March, Maturo painted an optimistic picture of how citizens “shaken to their cores by civil allegations and criminal arrests alleging biased and unconstitutional policing” had responded.
“With the implementation of body cameras, and especially in light of recent events across the country regarding use of force, our department is considered to be on the cutting edge of the policing industry,” Maturo said.
Training, Technology and Turnover
Those body cameras are only part of the technological and procedural changes from the East Haven consent decree.
The police have rewritten policies on use of force, engagement with the public, citizen complaints and instituted “best practices” reflecting the latest in community policing methods.
The city rewrote its police manual, installed new software and a computer system to monitor arrest-reporting data that can lead to early warnings of bias. East Haven this month graduated the first class of a citizen police academy designed to give residents a feel for modern policing.
Extensive police training — much of it paid as overtime because officers were trained outside of regular shifts — helped push the cost of compliance up to a budgeted $3 million over four years; $300,000 goes to the monitors under a four-year contract with Ruiz’s firm.
The city of East Haven, which has an annual budget of $45 million (compared to roughly $25 million in Ferguson), is paying for these costs.
“The change in attitude has been like night and day in a short two years,” the monitor Ruiz wrote in March in a two-year status report. “I now notice younger officers of different background, race and ethnicity patrolling the streets and staffing the front desk at police headquarters.”
Ruiz’s report noted that East Haven Police had completed training in 87 areas, from bias-free policing to use of force and firearms. Of 142 instances of use of force by East Haven Police over the previous year — ranging from handcuffing to a shooting of a dog — all complied with new department standards, he noted.
Lawrence Sgrignari, a lawyer hired by East Haven to help handle the agreement, said that of 50 people on the East Haven force today, 23 were hired after a December 2011 Justice Department finding that the department engaged “in a pattern or practice of systemically discriminating against Latinos.”
Some say that kind of turnover should be expected and even welcomed in Ferguson, which has a similar-sized force.
“It was ultimately important that a certain number of officers were removed from the department,” said Michael Wishnie, a Yale law professor whose students documented alleged abuses in East Haven, helped successfully petition the Justice Department to get involved, and to prepare a civil suit on behalf of Chacon and other Latino residents against East Haven that resulted in a $450,000 settlement.
“You want to think that everyone can learn and everyone is capable of redemption,” Wishnie said. But the turnover “was necessary to create space for those individuals who actually wanted to do things differently but couldn’t find ways to speak up, and for other voices to come in.”
Ruiz’s report also noted more police engagement in the community and schools, with more officers speaking Spanish and even Greek and Arabic.
Manship, whose New Haven parish holds two of three Sunday masses in Spanish, said he is “cautiously optimistic.”
“They have gotten a few more Spanish-speaking officers in the department, and they pretty regularly will just stop in at the local bodegas and say ‘hi’ to folks, ask how things are going,” Manship said. “That just cracks all kinds of ice, you know.”
But he also said that “there is a lot of self-interest here” among local officials who just want to get the Justice Department “out of their hair,” and that the racial and ethnic strains in the community that led to federal oversight haven’t gone away because of new police policies.
“So now the storm has passed, now they are involved in other issues, which is just the daily struggle to survive, taking care of their families,” Manship said of his parishioners. “But the political structure is still in place, the mayor is still in place. When you talk about police reform, I think it is more about a conversation about race, and some really systemic things that have really caused a lot of problems for folks and their confidence in police in general.”
The legacy of reform
Mike Lawlor, the undersecretary for criminal justice and planning for Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, represented East Haven in the state Legislature for 24 years. He said he’s confident that after federal monitors leave, reforms will be hard to walk away from because of technology and because of East Haven’s reputation.
He pointed to the officer in South Carolina charged with murder this month after being caught on video shooting a man in the back. Before video phones, he said, that would have been a “paper report” — an officer’s word against a witness’s. Police, he said, know they are being watched.
“In this day and age, by and large, as this cop down in South Carolina is finding out, it is hard to get away with stuff,” Lawlor said.
The computerized arrest monitoring and other technological advances in policing allows oversight “in a way you could never do before,” he added.
And there is an oversight infrastructure in place. Manship’s Catholic parish was an organizing force in the Justice Department’s involvement. Yale law students took sworn statements from parishioners after Mass, and Manship solicited leaders in his congregation to help coax victims of police brutality to step forward.
“My advice is to organize and develop leaders for the long haul, not only to transform this horrible situation that has happened to them around Michael Brown’s death, but for the long haul to the betterment of the community,” Manship said of Ferguson.
He stressed the organizing should be around institutions, not individuals, and should prominently involve the police.
Wishnie, of Yale University, said he’s concerned about what he has read about Ferguson’s lack of strong civic organizations.
“The DOJ listens pretty carefully to members of the community speaking through their organizations,” he said. “I don’t know if there is that same network of churches, community leaders” in Ferguson.
It’s taken East Haven six years to get to this point. But years of struggling will be worth it, said Lawlor. He cited an incident last year in which an officer wearing a body camera shot a dog.
“When news got out that an East Haven cop shot a dog in the middle of the night, I think most people assumed there was no good reason for it — animal cruelty or something,” Lawlor said. “But when you watch the videotape, you say, ‘Gee, I would have shot the dog, too.’ Controversy over.”
And the dog survived.