EAST HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — A Connecticut town whose police force had a history of mistreating Latinos has transformed itself into a model for improving relations between police and the community, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Tuesday.
Lynch spoke with community members, police officers and federal authorities at East Haven High School, highlighting efforts by the town's police to improve ties with residents after a federal probe found discrimination by town officers.
"It is our hope that cities and jurisdictions that are still struggling with these issues ... will look at East Haven and take heart and see that, in fact, things can improve," the attorney general said. "It is our hope that other community groups that may feel voiceless ... will look at East Haven and see that they can empower themselves, that they can raise issues of concern."
Repeating comments she made during the first stop of her six-city tour in Cincinnati in May, Lynch called mistrust between communities and law enforcement "the issue of our times." After deaths of black men at the hands of police in Baltimore, South Carolina and Ferguson, Missouri, the issue is in the national forefront, she said.
Justice Department officials say Lynch's tour builds on President Barack Obama's pledge to improve police-community relations. Recommendations by a task force Obama created in December include more community policing and officer training.
Latinos in East Haven and a federal monitor have said there has been a remarkable turnaround at the police department since 2012, when local officials signed a consent decree that required wide-ranging reforms. The agreement resolved allegations by the Justice Department that officers regularly used excessive force against Latinos and retaliated against those who witnessed police misconduct or criticized officers.
"It's definitely very different, in a positive way," said Marcia Chacon, a native of Ecuador and East Haven resident who owns a small grocery store where police were accused of carrying out illegal searches and a false arrest. "Prior to this, we didn't have any confidence in reaching out to the police in order to get help."
East Haven Deputy Police Chief Ed Lennon said the department has taken a number of steps including holding regular community meetings, having school-based officers check on children and creating a citizens' police academy. He also said the department has made efforts to be more transparent, including requiring all officers to wear body cameras.
In 2013, officials in the shoreline town of nearly 30,000 residents — where about one in 10 is Latino — agreed to pay $450,000 to settle a civil rights lawsuit by Latino residents. A separate federal criminal investigation led to the 2012 arrests of four East Haven police officers, who were convicted and sentenced to prison.
Despite the improvements, East Haven police still have work to do, including fulfilling the remaining requirements in the consent decree, said Michael Wishnie, a Yale Law School professor who represented the plaintiffs in the civil rights lawsuit.
"The kinds of structural racism and practices that have long existed in East Haven take a long time to change," Wishnie said. "I think it's far too soon to claim victory."