HARTFORD, Conn. -- A Connecticut police chief who was suspended as the FBI investigates claims that his officers harassed Hispanic residents was welcomed back Tuesday by a new mayor who said he does not believe the allegations are true.
East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo, who took office Nov. 19, reinstated the chief who was put on paid administrative leave last year after the Justice Department's civil rights branch began investigating claims of discriminatory policing. The FBI has also been gathering evidence for potential criminal prosecutions of some officers, and agents raided Chief Leonard Gallo's locked office less than two weeks ago.
In an interview, Maturo said he is open to the work of federal investigators, but he has confidence in Gallo and the rest of the force.
"I don't think any of it rose to the level of just cause to get rid of a police chief," he said of the material he read in the previous administration's files.
The U.S. civil rights investigation began in September 2009 in East Haven, a New Haven suburb where Hispanics and their advocates say police targeted them with traffic stops, false arrests and even jailhouse beatings. Latino business owners said rough treatment by police drove many newcomers from Mexico and Ecuador to leave the seaside town of about 28,000 people.
A Roman Catholic priest who presides over a predominantly Latino parish in East Haven, the Rev. James Manship, said the town needs a change from policies that shook public confidence in police.
"It is astounding that Mayor Maturo has chosen to reinstate a police chief who presided over an institution that created a culture of impunity for harassment and abuse of Latinos," said Manship, who was arrested in 2009 while videotaping East Haven police officers to document alleged harassment as officers removed license plates from the wall of a Hispanic couple's store.
Gallo was suspended in April 2010 by Mayor April Capone, who said she was concerned by the civil rights investigation that identified preliminary concerns over issues including outdated policies and a lack of clear guidance on the use of force.
Capone, who lost a re-election bid to Maturo earlier this month, was the target of a vote last month that found police had no confidence in her leadership. At the time, she said the vote was motivated by union members who were upset with the FBI investigation and her refusal to state publicly there had been no police wrongdoing.
Dozens of police officers have reportedly been subpoenaed as part of the criminal probe. Earlier this month, town officials said three FBI agents including a computer technician visited the police department to access the ousted chief's locked office.
Maturo said he does not believe officers singled Latinos out for harassment, but the town will deal later with any charges that might result from the investigation.
"When and if these allegations become more than just allegations, they will be dealt with," he said.
In the meantime, he said the town will look into suggestions for improving community relations that resulted from a March audit by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based law enforcement organization dedicated to improving policing.
He said the police department is planning an open house on Dec. 10 to promote dialogue with the community. Gaetano Nappi, who had been serving as acting chief, returned to his position of inspector.
At a news conference announcing his reappointment, Gallo said it felt "wonderful" to be back.
"The mayor and I have spoken with other members of the staff and the department is heading in a positive direction under his (Maturo's) leadership," Gallo said in remarks reported by the New Haven Register. "The people have spoken. We have a new mayor."