DOJ Intervention May Help Conn. Police Regain Community's Trust
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The sort of tension we saw between police and community in Ferguson, Missouri is an old story in East Haven, Connecticut. Five years ago, that city's police were in conflict with Latinos. Now, East Haven is a case study of what police can change.
Here's Davis Dunavin of WSHU.
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DAVIS DUNAVIN, BYLINE: East Haven Lieutenant David Emerman's got a whole array of equipment here in his squad car - a dashboard camera, microphones, a laptop. That's not counting all the tools he carries, including a body camera.
LIEUTENANT DAVID EMERMAN: I mean, it can be cumbersome. All our officers have a lot on their belt, there's no doubt.
DUNAVIN: The department didn't get all this new gear out of nowhere. The federal government orders East Haven to use these tools under a consent decree.
EMERMAN: It covers pretty much soup to nuts, you know, policing. It really re-wrote the way we operate.
DUNAVIN: The way the Justice Department put it is, the department engaged in a pattern or practice of systematically discriminating against Latinos. Here's how a local priest put it.
FATHER JAMES MANSHIP: The cops brutalized them.
DUNAVIN: That's Father James Manship of New Haven's St. Rose of Lima church.
MANSHIP: People were really not sure what to do. There was kind of a lot of fear.
DUNAVIN: Especially among Manship's largely Latino congregation. They're a minority in this mostly working-class community. Some of the cops targeted Latinos, harassed them in their shops, even beat them. He says no one seemed to care.
MANSHIP: The police department was totally out of control and out of any kind of accountability to civil authority. Where were we to go?
DUNAVIN: In 2009, Manship got arrested videotaping officers and the scandal blew open. In the fall-out, the Department of Justice stepped in. Two officers were convicted and two others plead guilty in a civil rights probe. It hit a low point in 2012 when the mayor responded to the community's anger by making a joke about tacos.
Today about half the department has been replaced, including the chief and most of the patrol officers. Manship says he's still skeptical.
MANSHIP: There's still some more changes that need to happen, but they're most definitely headed in the right direction.
DUNAVIN: At least once a month, Lieutenant Emerman tries to drop by this Latino-owned market called My Country Store.
Here's Paul Matute, the owner's son.
PAUL MATUTE: He always comes in and talks to us and tells us to tell people to not be scared of anything, you know, that everything's changed and they want to be part of the community, and they want everyone to feel a part of it, too.
DUNAVIN: In 2009, police were harassing employees and customers here. Matute says these days, not that many people are scared.
MATUTE: I mean, some of them, not any more. But some still think that something might happen someday, you know?
DUNAVIN: The data looks good for police. The latest reports show they're pulling over Latinos and searching them and using force at lower rates. But fixing trust is about more than numbers.
Cathy Schneider is a criminal justice professor at American University.
CATHY SCHNEIDER: The message can't be we had this lawsuit, we had this outcome, so we are not going to do racial profiling anymore. There has to be positive outreach.
DUNAVIN: She says police in towns like East Haven regain trust when they start actively looking out for minorities.
SCHNEIDER: Poor minority communities need police forces. Latino communities are most likely to be victims of crime. Immigrants are the most likely to be victims of crime. These are communities that want the police to protect them.
DUNAVIN: Lieutenant Emerman knows not everyone in the Latino community trusts the police yet, but he says he hopes East Haven can become a model for other places where cops need to rebuild trust.
EMERMAN: How they deal with the community in non-confrontational settings maybe like we have here. We have community meetings.
DUNAVIN: He says now they want to show the world a police department can turn itself around. So the East Haven Police Department is hiring, and the ability to speak Spanish is a big plus.
For NPR, I'm Davis Dunavin in Connecticut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.