BRIDGEPORT (Reuters) - Four police officers were arrested on Tuesday on charges of racial profiling, excessive force and conspiracy against Latinos in East Haven, Connecticut, prosecutors said.
The men -- Sgt. John Miller and officers David Cari, Dennis Spaulding and Jason Zullo -- are accused of routinely injuring, threatening and intimidating Latinos with false arrests, false reports and harassment, according to the federal indictment.
“They behaved like bullies with badges,” Janice Fedarcyk, assistant director in charge of the FBI New York field office, told a news conference in Bridgeport.
“The officers have damaged the reputation of their department. The residents of East Haven don’t deserve to need protection against those sworn to protect them,” she said.
Known as “Miller’s boys,” the four men are accused of extending their conduct to anyone who complained about their behavior, including fellow police officers and members of the East Haven Police Commission.
“Miller led by example,” the 18-page indictment states.
“Miller struck a hand-cuffed individual who was under the secure control of two other patrol officers... and reprimanded the one witnessing officer who reported the abuse to his supervising sergeant,” it stated.
Prosecutors said Miller skipped over the chain of command and reported directly to a leader in the East Haven Police Department, described in court papers as “co-conspirator-1,” who shielded Miller against internal investigations.
Federal prosecutor David Fein told the news conference that the investigation was ongoing and more charges against other individuals could be filed.
Fein declined to answer questions about East Haven police chief Leonard Gallo, who was put on administrative leave in 2010 after the Department of Justice release a preliminary report on its investigation into the police department. Gallo returned to the job late last year when a new mayor was elected.
Gallo’s secretary referred all calls about the arrests of the four officers on Tuesday to East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo.
“It is important to remember that an indictment is not a conviction and that the four officers who were indicted are innocent until proven otherwise,” Maturo said. “Residents can rest assured that their homes and families are protected.”
Defense lawyer Hugh Keefe, who is representing the officers in a civil suit that alleges charges similar to those of the criminal case, described the arrest and handcuffing of two of the men in front of their children on Tuesday as a “cowboy stunt.”
“These officers are presumed innocent and the public ought to withhold judgment until these cases run their course,” Keefe said in a statement.
The officers are due to appear in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport later on Tuesday.
The indictment accused Miller, Spaulding, Zullo and another unnamed officer of using unreasonable force during lawful and unlawful arrests.
“In some cases, the victims were handcuffed with their hands behind their backs when they were assaulted by officers,” it stated. “Some of the victims were particularly vulnerable because they were undocumented aliens or otherwise marginalized, having little perceived standing in the community, and thus unlikely to raise objection to the abuse.”
Spaulding and Zullo conducted unreasonable and illegal searches at Latino-owned businesses, parked patrol cars in front of these businesses and regularly conducted traffic stops of Latino customers entering or exiting these businesses, towed their vehicles, and arrested and detained them.
The indictment states that Cari and Spaulding prepared false reports to support their false arrests to conceal their misconduct and the two officers blocked citizens from video-taping police conduct.
In December 2011, the civil rights division of the Department of Justice released a report separate from the criminal investigation that “found a pattern of misconduct was deeply rooted in the department’s culture,” said Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights.
“This is an abuse of power,” Perez said. “This is a department engaged in a pattern of practices and willfully failing to put in place internal systems of control.”
Editing by Michelle Nichols and Paul Thomasch