EAST HAVEN, Conn. — The FBI agent whose investigations revealed unchecked racial discrimination within the police department here described the worst officers as "bullies with badges." They parked their squad cars near the banks of the Quinnipiac River along a handful of roads connecting New Haven and East Haven and pulled over drivers for the color of their skin. They stalked Latino businesses, harassing, arresting and assaulting customers and business owners, then lied about their actions in police reports.
A White Catholic priest, swamped in complaints from his parishioners about the department, stood up to the police. His arrest in 2009 for obstruction set in motion a rare rebuke for a small-town force: a court-ordered agreement known as a consent decree between the Justice Department and local authorities to clean up police practices in their community.
“They were keeping communities of color afraid, in check,” said the Rev. James Manship, the arrested priest, “and the contact with the officers was becoming more and more violent. And I really felt that we were headed to a fatality.”
The Justice Department under President Barack Obama described the discriminatory pattern of traffic stops and a host of other practices by the East Haven Police Department as unconstitutional policing. Court-negotiated changes came alongside charges for four officers, each of whom did prison time.
The five-year path to completion had the effect of reversing a long legacy of discrimination and vaulting the department into the ranks of the most progressive in Connecticut, local activists, advocates, officers and early opponents of the department said.
But using consent decrees as an instrument to restructure police departments was largely abandoned by the Trump administration, which broadly rolled back civil rights efforts by the Justice Department. The Obama administration opened 25 “pattern or practice” investigations of police departments compared to one under Trump.
In January, the department is expected to resume policing the police as President-elect Joe Biden has said he intends to make civil rights a major focus of his administration. It comes at a moment when scrutiny of American policing has never been higher.
A 2015 Washington Post examination of police department changes compelled by the Justice Department found that the departments modernized some aspects of policing, but had a limited impact on the use of force.
Some experts hope the Biden administration will focus on collaboration as an alternative to legal action against departments, while reserving that option when egregious behavior is discovered, as happened in East Haven.
“The Department of Justice must have subpoena power for pattern or practice investigations into systemic misconduct by police departments and force these departments to reform,” Biden wrote in a USA Today guest column in June.
He also said he would revive the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, which in the Obama administration examined police practices through a program known as “collaborative reform” but stopped doing so under Trump.
A priest's arrest
East Haven has been hailed as an example of what is possible with buy-in from departments. Loretta E. Lynch, Obama’s attorney general, visited the Connecticut shore town in 2015, two years before it completed its decree, and praised the amount of progress.
“This could have been a situation where the police just sort of checked a box and did what they did to show the Department of Justice they were complying,” Lynch said. “But if the people who really felt victimized don’t see a difference, then we would not view it as a success.”
Police Chief Ed Lennon and members of his staff said the department undertook systematic changes, and they continue to monitor progress. The command staff, for instance, closely monitors traffic stop data to ensure drivers are treated consistently no matter their race.
The department actively recruited Spanish-speaking officers. And it was among the first in Connecticut to wear body cameras, beginning in 2014.
“We kind of smirk when we see some agencies that don’t have body cameras yet show resistance, and then they ask us our take on it,” said East Haven Capt. Joseph Murgo. “We wouldn’t do this job without them. We have an actual unbiased representation of the interaction that’s in place and it’s transparent.”
Most of the officers from the late aughts are gone, and the ones who stayed wanted change, said Lennon, the 41-year-old department chief.
“We do the best job we possibly can and treat people with respect. And I think that’s the best way to gauge the success of the police department,” Lennon said. “The big calls, the major assaults, the armed robberies — you’re having a big impact on somebody’s life and they’re going to remember that. But that person picks up on the way you treat them on those little calls: the damage to motor vehicles. If you treat them just as good for those, it’s just as important because those are more reflective of real life, because those happen every single day.”
The impetus for the federal government involvement in East Haven can be traced back to Feb. 19, 2009, when officers confiscated decorative license plates from the wall of an Ecuadoran market under the pretense that it was illegal to hold onto old license plates. During the incident, they arrested a man in a black coat, black hat and scarf covering his clerical collar. Manship, then the pastor at New Haven’s St. Rose of Lima Church, entered the store to film the interaction and left in handcuffs, charged with interfering with a police officer and creating a public disturbance.
Manship at the time described the arrest as the “tip of a toxic iceberg” of racial profiling targeting Latinos in the city.
He reached out to then-Mayor April Capone and then-Police Chief Leonard Gallo, who rebuffed him and denied there was any racial profiling in East Haven. Contacts with state officials went unanswered. So Manship contacted the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
After the Justice Department concluded its investigation and put the department under decree, Lennon became the compliance coordinator in charge of spearheading the department’s response. Meanwhile, the new police chief sparred with Manship and other advocates over the depth of dysfunction in East Haven. Police Chief Brent Larrabee, hired in 2013, insisted to Manship that a functioning internal investigations unit would have corrected the issues.
“And I said, if there’s any organization in the world that knows that it cannot investigate itself,” Manship said, “it’s the Roman Catholic Church. Cops cannot investigate cops.”
Meanwhile, Larrabee and Lennon went about rebuilding the department, which saw a slew of retirements following the decree. To boost diversity in recruiting, they awarded points in the application process for a new set of skills, including college degrees and language proficiency; the more than 50-strong department now has officers who speak Greek, Italian, Vietnamese, Arabic, Mandarin and Cantonese as well as Spanish.
The department trained officers on de-escalation techniques, amping up recruits for a high-stress simulation, then putting them in a less urgent scenario, requiring officers to quickly pivot to a new response. A recruit, for instance, might be told he’s about to encounter a hostage situation with actors playing the roles of hostage takers and hostages, and then walk into a simple case of shoplifting.
Lennon and a handful of officers rewrote an antiquated policy manual, and enacted a use-of-force rule, requiring investigations into each incident and sign-off from the chief or deputy chief on the outcome.
“Once we got out of the consent decree, we didn’t pull back all those changes and just say, hey, you know what, we don’t really need to do that anymore,” said Capt. David Emerman, the department’s highest-ranking Spanish speaker. “We maintain those things for two reasons. Obviously we want to be the best we can be. Also, those are the best practices now. I mean, we probably leapfrogged about 30 or 40 years.”
Paul Matute, the 29-year-old son of the owners of My Country Store, the Ecuadoran American market where Manship was arrested in 2009, says the consent decree created a new environment, one in which the family business could flourish.
“I think people felt uncomfortable going out. They were scared to get harassed,” Matute said. “People were afraid to come to the store because they thought they’d get pulled over for being Hispanic. Now people are comfortable. That would never happen again in this town.”
The 2012 arrests of four officers, advocates said, had a significant effect on discrimination in the city. Officers Jason Zullo, David Cari, Dennis Spaulding and Sgt. John Miller were charged with obstruction of justice (writing a false police report) and conspiracy against civil rights, false arrest and excessive force. John Jairo Lugo of Unidad Latina en Acción (Latinos United in Action), a New Haven-based group, said that while effective change came to East Haven, the region remains a hostile place for Latinos.
“Seeing police officers go to jail was a big deal,” Lugo said. “You see officers kill unarmed people and not even go to jail. That gave a lot of people in the community the power to speak up. On some level, the police are more careful, but that doesn’t mean the culture changed. Maybe they don’t have those problems anymore in East Haven, but we still have those problems in New Haven. That’s a constant fight.”
A collaborative model
Lennon’s been asked to spread the word about East Haven’s successes across the country. He talks about effective tweaks to the hiring process, modern training techniques in de-escalation and how to delegate oversight to supervising officers — but mostly at places like the Harvard Kennedy School and the FBI Academy.
He’s yet to be invited to speak at police chiefs association meetings for Connecticut or south central Connecticut.
“Locally, there hasn’t been that much interest,” Lennon said. “I think it’s just their perspective on it. We could be two miles down the road from each other and we each have different problems.”
Said Manship: “It says a lot. A lot of these [Connecticut] cities want to pretend they don’t have the same problems, but they do. This genteel racism is systemic in our state.”
Lennon says many regional departments at the time of the decree felt their problems were different from East Haven’s and saw little value in learning about East Haven’s experience. His predecessor, Larrabee, left the regional chiefs associations after feeling his colleagues had distanced themselves from East Haven.
Lennon, who has rejoined the associations, wonders if a Justice Department emphasis on another Obama-era program, collaborative reform — basically consent decrees without the court mandate — would be a more successful approach for more police departments. “But with that,” he said, “you really have to have buy-in at every level, locally, from the department to the local government.”
Kathleen O’Toole, the former Seattle police chief who consults with the Justice Department on the issue and was the monitor who worked directly with East Haven, said police chiefs across the country often see consent decrees as long, drawn-out, expensive processes they can’t afford. The Oakland Police Department in California has been under consent decree since 2003, and taxpayers have shelled out more than $16 million to an independent monitoring team assigned by the federal government.
“Most chiefs I speak to are eager to rebuild trust in policing and are looking for models for reform and innovation,” she said. “Chiefs are much more likely to embrace the model if it’s a collaborative one.”