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 covered 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. The Hispanic population had doubled in the past decade to more than 10 percent of the seaside city's 28,000 people, but Latino business owners said rough treatment by police drove away many newcomers from Mexico and Ecuador.
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.
"In simple terms, these defendants behaved like bullies with badges," said Janice Fedarcyk, assistant director of the New York office of the FBI.
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.
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 refers to Chief Leonard Gallo, according to his attorney, Jon Einhorn, who denied that Gallo blocked the investigation.
"It's unfair that he is mentioned in this regard when he isn't even indicted," Einhorn said.
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.