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U.S. Department of Justice announces probe into racial profiling allegations against East Haven police

EastHavenpoliceIn March 2009, the members of St. Rose of Lima Church in East Haven, Connecticut submitted an official racial-profiling complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice, alleging that the local law enforcement agency, the East Haven Police Department (EHPD), had been engaging in a pattern of race-based violence against Latinos in and around East Haven. After considering the complaint, the Department of Justice announced on Wednesday, December 3rd, that they were launching a federal investigation based on the allegations of harassment against the EHPD.

Angel Fernandez, a parish leader from Fair Haven’s St. Rose of Lima Church, made the announcement at a vigil held in East Haven on Wednesday, and was met with a thunderous burst of applause from the crowd that was assembled. The audience included New Haven’s Ecuadorian Consulate, parishioners from St. Rose, and Father James Manship, a priest that was arrested in February while trying to videotape an incident of racial harassment taking place in a store in East Haven.

While the complaint traces stories of racial-profiling by the East Haven police beginning in June 2008, the EHPD’s discrimination against Latinos is part of a much longer history of police abuse of racial minorities in East Haven. The Latino community in this otherwise predominantly white area now accounts for about 6 percent of the population,  and while Latino-owned businesses and shops line the town’s streets, they have consistently been faced with suspicion and hostility from local law enforcement. From the complaint:

Since June 2008, the EHPD has targeted the Latino community in improper stops, searches and seizures, false arrests, and the use of excessive force in ordinary encounters with Latino residents and motorists. Latinos are pulled over without reasonable suspicion while driving, arrested without probable cause and in some cases, severely beaten by law enforcement officials. As a consequence, Latinos in East Haven now live in daily fear of harassment and retaliation by East Haven police officers.

The complaint documents more than twenty detailed accounts of race-based violence and harassment suffered by shopkeepers and residents of East Haven and its neighboring towns, and classifies the accounts into the following broad categories: ‘Race-Based Violence and Excessive Force,’ ‘Harassment and Intimidation,’ ‘The Department’s Tacit Approval,’ and ‘Police Retaliation and Lack of Redress.’ In his speech announcing the investigation last Wednesday, Fernandez recounted some of the personal stories that lie at the center of the complaint and called it  “a victory for the brave men and women who risked retaliation to tell their stories of abuse to the public for the first time.”

One of the accounts tells of four men, Guillermo, Juan, Jorge and Juan, who were driving to a restaurant and were followed and stopped by Officer Dennis Spaulding. Without telling them why they were being stopped, the officer asked to see the license of two of the men, even though one of them, Juan, was a passenger and not the driver. On finding that Juan’s was not a Connecticut license, the officer threw it on the ground, and when Juan tried to pick it up, he was arrested. When Jorge inquired as to why his friend was being arrested, he, too, was arrested. By this point, five other squad cars had gathered and were all witnessing this. In a few minutes, all four men had been arrested, frisked, and put in different cars. During the course of the evening, they were punched, pepper-sprayed, and subject to racial epithets and verbal abuse as they spent the night in the police station.

The complaint also contains numerous accounts of race-based traffic stops, harassment and abuse by the police, often in the police station and in full view of senior police officers. A number of the Latino store owners told of how the police would set up check-points directly outside their stores and stop Latino customers as they were exiting the parking-lot, asking them for their license and registration. One shop owner, Lazaro, often came to work and found the police and a tow truck in his parking lot. When he asked them to leave, the officer threatened to come every day. Lazaro asked him, “What, you don’t like Hispanics?” and the officer replied, “No, I don’t.” After this incident, the police began to come into Lazaro’s store and harass the customers for their ID and car papers. Lazaro has seen a significant drop in customers and has made it difficult for him to pay his rent and monthly bills.

Police officers have repeatedly denied allegations of racial profiling, and have being caught lying about incidents since members of the community took to filming confrontations taking place in stores and checkpoints. Tafari Lumumba, a Yale student attorney who helped draft the complaint gave an idea of the possible outcomes of the investigation by the Department of Justice.  Siting a similar probe of the LAPD, he said that a possible outcome could be a consent decree covering the East Haven police department, that would require the department to track the race of people being arrested and stopped for traffic violations. Further requirements could include additional training for the officers and the implementation of a new citizen complaint system.

On the note of race-based violence, a town hall meeting will be held in Miami, Florida on December 10th, Human Rights Day, to talk about racial profiling. Organized by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, ‘Racial Profiling: Face the Truth‘ will be a meeting of national and local activists and people who want to share their personal stories of racial profiling. Panelists include Chandra Bhatnagar, Marleine Bastien, Subhash Kateel, Muhammed Malik and Jumana Musa. For more information, click here.

Photo courtesy of www.newhavenindependent.org