EAST HAVEN, Conn. - Four police officers, including the president of the local police union, were arrested Tuesday by the FBI on charges that they assaulted illegal immigrants and created false reports to cover up abuses in a New Haven suburb where a federal investigation found life was made miserable for Hispanics.
The East Haven officers assaulted individuals while they were handcuffed, unlawfully searched Latino businesses, and harassed and intimidated individuals, including advocates, witnesses and other officers who tried to investigate or report misconduct or abuse the officers committed, according to the federal indictment.
Federal authorities began investigating police in 2009 in East Haven, where the federal probe last month documented a pattern of abuse. Latino business owners said rough treatment by police drove many newcomers from Mexico and Ecuador to leave the blue-collar city.
The arrests were welcomed by Hispanic business owners in East Haven, including Luis Rodriguez, an immigrant from Ecuador who had complained of harassment by police at his Los Amigos Grocery store.
"They should have to pay, not with many years, but enough to make an example of them. They should not abuse their power," Rodriguez said. "All I ever wanted was to be left in peace."
Officers Dennis Spaulding, David Cari and Jason Zullo and Sgt. John Miller, president of the police union, are charged with conspiracy, deprivation of rights and obstruction of justice.
Federal officials say the officers denied Latino residents and their advocates the right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures, the right to not be arrested and detained without probable cause and the right to not be arrested on false and misleading evidence.
Zullo allegedly described taking joy in singling out Latinos, telling Spaulding in a 2008 exchange quoted by the indictment that he liked harassing drivers and referred to "persons who have drifted to this country on rafts made of chicken wings and are now residing" in East Haven.
Miller repeatedly slapped a man handcuffed in his car, while Spaulding threw a man to the ground and repeatedly kicked him while he was handcuffed, according to the indictment. Mayor Joseph Maturo said the four men were arrested around 6 a.m. Tuesday at their homes and at the police department.
Donald Cretella, Miller's lawyer, said his client has been honored with awards and risked his life in shootouts.
"John Miller is a hero in East Haven," he said. "He's decorated. He's a wonderful family man. Hopefully, we'll clear his name."
Frank Riccio Jr., Spaulding's attorney, said his client is an exemplary police officer.
"At this early stage it's our position Mr. Spaulding is not guilty of the charges. He's been nothing but an exemplary police officer. That's why this is shocking."
It wasn't immediately clear who was representing Cari and Zullo.
The indictment says Miller reported to a police department leader described as a co-conspirator who blocked efforts by the police commission to investigate Miller's misconduct. That is a reference to Chief Leonard Gallo, according to a person with direct knowledge who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing. A message was left for Gallo.
The indictment also accuses unnamed union leaders of intimidation and interference to protect the officers, including a depiction of a rat posted on a bulletin board and a cartoon saying "You know what we do with snitches?" in a police locker room.
The U.S. attorney for Connecticut, David Fein, said the investigation is still looking into other incidents and individuals. Officials said no more arrests were expected Tuesday.
Maturo, a Republican who took office Nov. 19, recently reinstated Gallo as police chief. Gallo had been on paid administrative leave since federal authorities began investigating in 2010. Maturo said he backs the police.
"I stand behind the police department," he said. "We have a great police department."
The U.S. Department of Justice, which has pledged to reach out to the police department to work on reforms, said last month that the department engaged in a pattern of discrimination against Latino residents. Investigators said their probe was complicated by efforts to interfere with witnesses and by police silence.
Nearly half or a third of the drivers pulled over by certain officers were Latino, and the number of Latinos pulled over by certain squads was "extraordinarily high," said Roy Austin Jr., deputy assistant attorney general for the civil rights division. Latinos who were stopped for minor violations were subjected to harsher punishments, such as arrest or vehicle towing, than were non-Latinos.
The East Haven Police Department of some 50 officers has come under scrutiny previously for civil rights issues. A federal jury ruled in 2003 that a white officer used excessive force and violated the rights of a black man he fatally shot after a chase.
Some officers involved in that case kept their jobs and were promoted, and there was no evidence that anyone received training to prevent similar confrontations in the future, Austin said.