Cops around Connecticut are beset by controversy - Could that be a good thing?
By Gregory B. Hladky
3:25 p.m. EDT, October 11, 2011
This story contains a correction.
What the hell is going on with Connecticut cops? The past 18 months have seen an eruption of scandals, arrests, resignations, retirements and investigations triggered by all sorts of allegations of police wrongdoing.
There are federal grand juries investigating police harassment and brutality in East Haven and Meriden. Bridgeport’s deputy chief is under FBI scrutiny for allegedly obstructing a murder investigation. In Windsor Locks**, father and son policemen are arrested after a fatal accident. One high-ranking New Britain commander is charged with drunk driving and commits suicide; another is placed on leave amid sexual harassment allegations. In New Haven, an assistant chief busts a citizen for recording a police arrest, then retires as controversy erupts.
And an outside review finds an “overwhelming atmosphere of paranoia and distrust” within Hartford police ranks, citing the department’s internal affairs unit as a prime villain.
This apparent flood of bad-cop news stories might give you the idea we’ve entered a new dark age of police rottenness. According to a lot of legal and law enforcement authorities in Connecticut, that’s not the case.
In fact, they believe all these police controversies may be a sign that times are changing for the better.
“I don’t think there is any new river of police misconduct emerging,” says Jonathan Einhorn, a veteran defense attorney and a former member of the New Haven police commission. “This is the old stuff that’s finally being pursued.”
John Williams, a New Haven lawyer who’s handled dozens of police brutality, misconduct and discrimination cases, has the same opinion. “It’s not in any way unique to Connecticut. It’s common wherever you have police departments.”
“I have always though that Connecticut, for all its [police] problems, is better than many places,” says Williams. “At least we care about it, we think about it.”
Gov. Dannel Malloy’s top criminal justice adviser, Michael Lawlor, believes Connecticut has “a big problem” with an erosion of public confidence in law enforcement, but insists our troubles are nowhere near as bad as what goes on in cities like New Orleans and Los Angeles. “I think we’d be on the plus side of the spectrum compared to a lot of the rest of the country.”
Experts like John DeCarlo, a University of New Haven associate professor and a former Branford police chief, say more of these misconduct cases are now coming to light because local, state and federal officials are a lot more inclined to investigate police wrongdoing than they were 10 or 20 years ago.
“Chiefs and police administrators are more willing to step up and not sweep things under the rug,” says DeCarlo, who spent 34 years in law enforcement.
“What’s evident and where there’s good news is that finally the federal government and local authorities are starting to take seriously allegations of police misconduct,” says Einhorn.
“Historically, putting police feet to the fire over misconduct has been like pulling teeth — nobody wanted to do it.”
Andrew Schneider, executive director of the Connecticut branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, agrees. He says U.S. Justice Department officials in the past “have not always been sufficiently aggressive in prosecuting cases of police misconduct.”
That attitude is beginning to change, Schneider adds, noting that he is seeing federal prosecutors “take an interest in the issue of racial profiling, which is great.”
West Hartford Police Chief James Strillacci argues that Connecticut police have become more professional in recent decades, and that they are more willing to investigate complaints of misconduct by fellow officers now than they were years ago.
Top law enforcement officials, defense attorneys and former cops all emphasize that the vast majority of police at every level are honest types who are working hard to uphold the law rather than break it.
That doesn’t mean everybody’s happy with what cops are up to
these days. For example, police use — or misuse — of electronic stun guns or
Tasers is becoming increasingly controversial.
Police across Connecticut are now armed with Tasers and are using them more often to subdue people they’re arresting. They say using the stun weapon is a safe and effective alternative to other types of force, like beating somebody over the head with a baton. Critics warn Tasers are being used too quickly and unnecessarily, such as a recent incident when a Middletown cop used a stun gun on a high-school kid who’d stolen a meat patty from the cafeteria.
There are also fears that Tasers can kill when used on the wrong person at the wrong time. Over a five-year period, at least nine people in Connecticut have died after being Tasered by police. The manufacturer and police officials insist Tasers were not the direct cause of any of those deaths.
The Malloy administration and the ACLU last year pushed for state guidelines and training standards for the use of Tasers, but that bill never won legislative approval. Another ACLU-backed proposal would have given legal protection from arrest to citizens who record police activities. The bill was a response to several police busts of people for taking pictures of cops making arrests, but that measure was another casualty of the 2011 General Assembly session.
The image of policemen has suffered in recent decades as more and more examples of police corruption and brutality have been splashed across TV screens and news headlines.
Joe Average Citizen is a lot quicker to be suspicious of cops today, according to Lawlor. He says police, like legislators, prosecutors, top government officials, doctors and members of the clergy, have seen their reputation for integrity damaged by a few corrupt jerks.
“People today are much more willing to accept the idea that the criminal justice system can be corrupted,” Lawlor says.
If there’s a difference, DeCarlo says, it’s that “police are the most visible form of government.” Most people don’t see or notice lawmakers or prosecutors in their everyday lives, and probably don’t want to. Everybody is aware when a cop drives or walks by.
21st-century technology is also making it a lot tougher for cops to get away with anything nasty, according to Lawlor. There are TV monitors and recording devices and cell phone cameras almost everywhere these days — in jails and cop cars, on street corners and inside stores.
Video recordings at Meriden’s police headquarters have played a big role in allegations of police brutality involving Officer Evan Cossette (son of Chief Jeffry Cossette) and a federal investigation into a possible police cover-up.
Evan Cossette was recorded in a May 2010 video repeatedly entering a holding cell and moving Pedro Temich around, who at that point already had a head wound that later required 12 stitches. Cossette claims Temich, who is five feet tall and was handcuffed, was acting in a threatening manner, was drunk and cracked his head open when he fell.
A lawsuit filed in federal court charges that Temich was injured when he was pushed. Meriden police admitted erasing a six- to eight-second section of video tape that would have shown exactly what happened when Temich fell. There are two other claims of excessive force pending against Cossette.
Lawlor declined to comment on the Meriden case, but says police today have to be aware that “it’s much easier to get caught” when their actions are being recorded.
One aspect of the Meriden case centers on what the department’s internal affairs unit did (or didn’t do) about the Temich case. An investigation didn’t start until six weeks after the incident because none of the supervisors on duty felt the need to report it. Turns out Temich’s complaint was one of seven internal affairs complaints filed against the chief’s son over a seven-month period, none of which were upheld.
In the Temich case there was a finding that Cossette had violated the department’s use-of-force policies, but all the officer got was a letter of reprimand in his file. The controversy is now the focus of a federal grand jury.
If there is a common theme to many of the allegations of cop misconduct in Connecticut in recent years it’s that they somehow involved failures by the police to police themselves.
In 2006, a lengthy study by outside law-enforcement experts found that the Connecticut StatePolice had systematically manipulated or botched internal investigations into charges that state troopers were involved in bribery, drugs, sexual assaults and other alleged crimes. The report accused top state police commanders of routinely interfering in investigations or ignoring reports of misconduct.
There were a number of retirements and transfers following that report, and new people put in at the top of the department. But no one in the state police was ever publicly disciplined or fired over the findings.
The top New Britain officer who was put on administrative leave, Capt. Anthony Paventi, was head of that department’s internal affairs unit. He’s the target of multiple lawsuits accusing him of sexual harassment.
The extraordinary case involving Bridgeport Deputy Police Chief James Honis reaches all the way back to a 1977 strangulation of a prostitute. According to the Connecticut Post, sources said a veteran lieutenant has accused Honis and others in the department of obstructing the murder investigation.
In 1986, Honis complained he was being unfairly investigated by the department’s internal affairs unit. There was an immediate shakeup and Honis was transferred into the internal affairs office. There were other allegations against him over the years, but none were ever proven.
Honis has denied all wrongdoing.
Last month, an independent consultant issued a blistering condemnation of the Hartford Police Department’s internal affairs division. The report found management of the unit was “lax and at times nonexistent,” saying many members of the force lost all faith that bad cops were being disciplined.
“There is an overwhelming atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust that has permeated throughout the Hartford Police Department, not only at the command level, but throughout the rank and file,” according to the consultant.
The consultant, a former cop, pointed out that a 2008 review of HPD’s internal affairs unit made a lot of the same proposals for reform the consultant is now urging. City officials have promised to make changes this time around.
Williams says this inability or unwillingness of police to police themselves is a perennial headache in all law enforcement agencies. “It’s a problem in every police department where I’ve had occasion to look,” he explains.
According to Williams, police internal affairs units can be used to both protect bad cops who are part of the “in crowd” and punish good cops who are critical of the way a department is being run. “It’s both a shield and a sword,” he says.
When it comes to rooting out bad cops, police organizations always have to deal with the natural tendency cops have to back each other up. It’s part of their training and a key to surviving violent confrontations cops face on the street, but it can also lead to a reluctance to go after one of their own.
Civilian police commissions and review boards aren’t the answer, according to Williams and other experts.
“They don’t work,” Williams insists. He points to the failure of Hartford’s experiment with a civilian review board. The city continues to have a review panel, but it clearly wasn’t able to cope with or correct the major police problems identified in the recent consultant’s report.”They almost immediately get co-opted,” Williams says of such boards and commissions.
Lawlor says, “A civilian review board sounds good in theory, but they’re not in charge.” Einhorn explains that such panels “become a captive of the organization itself.”
No matter what kind of expert you talk to about police corruption and misconduct, they all seem to point toward the same fundamental solution: having the right person as your top cop. (Hartford’s chief of police, Daryl K. Roberts, announced his retirement barely three days before the release of the consultant’s blistering report on what was wrong with the department.)
“There’s no substitute for leadership,” Lawlor argues.
“You need a chief of police who is really deeply, personally committed to the process,” says Williams, “and those chiefs are rare.”
Strillacci, a chief for 19 years, puts it this way: “You’ve got to take that responsibility very seriously if you’re a police administrator.”
He adds that there’s always one last resort for policing the police:
“There are plenty of lawyers out there ready to sue us if we don’t do our job.”
** Originally, this article reported that the father/son police officers arrested over a fatal accident were in Windsor. It was Windsor Locks. We regret the error.
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