Conn. city agrees to settle federal police bias case

East Haven police vehicles are seen outside the police department in East Haven, Conn., in this December 2011 file photo.
AP Photo/Jessica Hill

HARTFORD, Conn. A suburban Connecticut city roiled by a police bias scandal has reached a proposed settlement of U.S. claims that officers engaged in a pattern of discrimination and abuse toward Latinos, the mayor and federal officials announced Tuesday.

The agreement mandates a series of police department reforms to address findings of an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division. The settlement, which still must be agreed to by town officials, resolves allegations that police engaged in a pattern of using excessive force and retaliation against those who witnessed police misconduct or criticized officers.

A separate, criminal investigation by the FBI led to the January arrest of four East Haven police officers accused of abusing Latino residents. One of them pleaded guilty this month to using unreasonable force during an arrest. The three others have pleaded not guilty, but a change of plea hearing was scheduled for one of them later Tuesday.

Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr. said the agreement marks the start of a new chapter for the East Haven Police Department.

"Entering into this agreement with the Department of Justice, and avoiding costly, prolonged and protracted litigation, is in the best interests of the town and the taxpayers," Maturo said. "While the cost to implement the provisions of the agreement is expected to be significant, this agreement represents another step toward turning yesterday's challenges into tomorrow's opportunities."

Maturo made national headlines himself when he said he might "eat tacos" when asked what he would do for the local Latino community after the FBI arrested the four officers.

The civil rights division launched its investigation in September 2009 following complaints that officers were harassing Hispanic residents of East Haven, a seaside city of about 28,000 people where Latinos make up only about 7 percent of the population. It announced its findings in December 2011.

The court-enforceable agreement calls for reforms including mandatory training on bias-free policing, development of up-to-date policies and measures on applying for search warrants and community engagement efforts including measure to create partnerships with all segments of the community.

Thomas Perez, an assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's civil rights division, said the reforms will result in effective policing for people who leave, work and travel in the town, outside New Haven.

"The proposed agreement will serve as a blueprint for sustainable reform that will provide the police department with the necessary tools and guidance it needs to restore trust from all segments of the East Haven community," Perez said.

Last month, Sgt. John Miller, former president of the police union, pleaded guilty to violating a person's civil rights by using unreasonable force, prosecutors said. Miller admitted that on Jan. 3, 2010, he struck a handcuffed individual while the victim was in the secure custody of two other East Haven police officers.

A change of plea hearing was scheduled Tuesday for another defendant, Jason Zullo, according to the U.S. attorney's office. Zullo's attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.