$450K Settlement Buys Latinos Peace Of Mind

Thomas MacMillan PhotoNew Haven cabbie Segundo Aguayza will no longer have to race home to try to protect his family now that East Haven police have agreed to official policies that are even more immigrant-friendly than New Haven’s.

Aguayza (pictured), while driving a taxi in New Haven, used to get calls from his wife at home in East Haven, telling him the cops were back, yelling and swearing and frightening the family. He is one of nine plaintiffs who sued the city of East Haven in 2010, amid a systematic campaign of police harassment and abuse of Latinos, many of whom were parishioners at the St. Rose of Lima church in Fair Haven.

East Haven this week agreed to settle the civil suit by paying $450,000 and implementing a new set of policies regarding immigrants. The policies limit East Haven cops’ involvement in enforcing immigration laws and make the town the first in Connecticut to categorically refuse to enforce federal immigration detainment requests.

Aguayza, an immigrant from Ecuador, was one of three plaintiffs who attended a noon press conference on the settlement Monday at St. Rose of Lima church on Blatchley Avenue in New Haven’s Fair Haven neighborhood, where it all began. The settlement marks the closure of the last of several civil and criminal cases stemming from the East Haven police department’s campaign of abuse against Latinos.

The settlement completes a transformation — at least, on paper — of the East Haven police force, one that began in 2009 with the revelation of ongoing race-based harassment of new Latino immigrants in East Haven.

The issue came to light after St. Rose’s Fr. James Manship was arrested while documenting alleged police harassment of Latino storeowners on Main Street in East Haven. Public scrutiny led to a U.S. Department of Justice investigation, the resignation of the police chief and the criminal prosecution of several cops.

Fr. Manship (pictured), Aquayza, and seven others filed a civil complaint against the town of East Haven. The complaint, written by students from Yale Law School, alleged violations of civil rights through through physical abuse, illegal search and seizure, and entering homes and businesses without permission.

Aguayza said cops used to harass his family at his home. They would stop by and yell, insult, and use profanity against his wife and kids, often saying they had received reports that the family dog was running wild, Aguayza said. He would be out driving his cab at the time. His wife would call him, and he would rush back to East Haven to try to stop the harassment.

One day, the cops showed up while Aguayza was home, to say the family dog was bothering neighbors. Aguayza pointed out that the dog was in the basement and had been there for some time. He got into an argument with a cop, who cursed at him, saying, “I hate immigrants,” threatened to arrest him, and refused to give his name.

“They’re supposed to protect us,” Aguayza said. “We were afraid.”

Aguayza began speaking out, he said. He spoke to the mayor, to the chief of police, to the Yale student attorneys. Aguayza said he was motivated because he speaks English. He worried for those who did not. “What about other people, who can’t defend themselves?”

This week’s settlement of that suit does not amount to an admission of guilt, East Haven Mayor Joe Maturo said in a Monday morning statement. “Rather, this settlement is another important step forward in the healing process for our community and for our police family. This agreement ends the threat of protracted litigation, saving taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees and avoiding the potential risk of a large, adverse monetary judgment. Perhaps most importantly, this agreement will provide necessary closure to a difficult and painful chapter in our Town’s history.”

David Rosen (pictured), a New Haven attorney who worked on the civil suit, said the settlement means that the East Haven police department “has gotten out of the business of being a border patrol.”

The department can now move from being “notorious” to being “a national model for how to treat its citizens,” said Rosen, who has also represented Emma Jones, a New Haven mother who sued East Haven after the towns cops shot and killed her son.

The East Haven police department has agreed to adopt Policy 428.2, said Mike Wishnie (pictured), head of the Yale law clinic that worked on the case. The policy states that East Haven cops will not ask anyone about his or her immigration status or ask to see passports, visas, or green cards. Cops will not arrest people for violating civil immigration laws, or make arrests or extend detentions on behalf of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.

Policy 428.2 goes further than a state law implemented last year to restrict police department cooperation with ICE, Wishnie said. Click here to see the new policy.

Part of the new policy was modeled after New Haven’s general order to its cops, prohibiting them from asking people about their immigration status. That order, along with New Haven’s issuance of “Resident ID Cards,” earned the city a reputation as a sanctuary for immigrants. Taken together, East Haven’s new policies make it arguably more immigrant-friendly even than New Haven.

“In a way, East Haven has become the model of 21st-century policing in diverse communities,” Wishnie said.

“I feel tranquil now,” said Marcia Chacon (pictured), a plaintiff and East Haven storeowner. She said Latinos in East Haven are now able to simply work in peace. “That’s what we’ve achieved and I’m happy.”

Chacon said conditions in East Haven have improved over the last couple of years, bringing Latinos back to the town. “Lots of people have returned.” She said she’s been able to improve her Main Street store, the scene of Manship’s arrest in 2009, with the addition of a small buffet.

East Haven is “totally different” now, Aguayza said. He said he feels safe, and can sleep at night without worrying about his wife and kids, now 9 and 11 years old.

“I hope it stays like that, because we have little ones growing,” he said. “It’s over, I hope.”

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