By Richard Weizel
EAST HAVEN, Conn. (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Tuesday met with residents of East Haven, Connecticut, saying she wanted to learn how the town's efforts to reform its police department were progressing.
The town entered into a settlement with the federal government in late 2012 after a federal review found its police department had systematically discriminated against Hispanic residents and used excessive force.
After a year in which the United States has seen waves of protests over police killings of unarmed black men, Lynch said she is looking to communities like this New Haven suburb for ideas on improving relations between citizens and law enforcement.
"When we look at what has happened in Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities across the country, I have made this one of my top priorities during my first few months as attorney general," Lynch told a group of local residents. "I want to know what has worked here, what hasn't and how to do whatever we can to move forward."
Lynch noted that with 53 officers serving a community of 29,000 people, East Haven's police force was about the size of the typical U.S. metropolitan police department.
Elio Cruz, a 37-year-old truck driver who met privately with Lynch, said he told her that two of his friends had been badly beaten by police in 2008, but that relations have improved since the city agreed to reforms including additional training on use of force and bias-free policing techniques.
"Latinos have been harassed and victimized in East Haven for many years, but things are starting to change," Cruz said following the closed-door session. "We still have a long way to go, but people are less afraid then they used to be."
East Haven Police Chief Brent Larrabee, brought in to head the department in February 2013 after the Justice Department settlement, told reporters he believed the department had made great strides since 2012, when four officers were arrested and charged with violating residents' civil rights and conspiring to cover up their actions.
Two of the four officers were found guilty of rights violations in jury trials and two pleaded guilty.
(Editing by Scott Malone and Lisa Lambert)