Scandal brings sudden fall for Conn. police chief

February 1, 2012 - 5:15 PM
Police Discrimination Conn

FILE - In this Jan. 26, 2006 file photo, police Chief Leonard Gallo talks with reporters at the East Haven, Conn., police station. Four East Haven police officers were arrested Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012, on charges of harassing and intimidating Latino residents. An indictment refers to Gallo as an unnamed co-conspirator, accused of blocking efforts by the police commission to investigate misconduct. His attorney has denied the allegations and criticized prosecutors for including the reference to him when he is not charged. (AP Photo/The New Haven Register, Melanie Stengel, File)

EAST HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — The police chief of the embattled city of East Haven is expected to retire this week with a severance package estimated at more than $100,000 — even though the police commission unanimously recommended Tuesday that he be fired and prevented from collecting anything more than his pension.

It may end up Chief Leonard Gallo's last victory in a career that has weathered twists and turns — often with a little help his powerful friend, Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr. — and made headlines out of proportion to this seaside suburb of 28,000 residents.

Gallo's lawyer acknowledges his client could be indicted as part of an investigation that has already resulted in the arrest of four police officers and found a pattern of discrimination against Latino residents.

Gallo's woes, Maturo's notorious quip last week about eating tacos as a way to help disenfranchised Hispanics, and the murky role of the two leaders' relationship in the town's history of scandal have sharply divided East Haven, an Italian-American bastion that has experience an influx of South American immigrants in recent years.

"We must be the laughing stock of America," said Fran Raucci, pointing to television news cameras outside the town hall this week. "I'm so embarrassed to say I'm from East Haven."

Resident Linda Depino, meanwhile, said that she supports the police department and Maturo, and that anyone who does not like the town is free to leave.

"I think we have a damn good mayor," she said. "They put more nails in him than they put in Jesus."

The four arrested officers are accused of harassment of Latinos that included beatings, false arrests and unnecessary searches in East Haven, which is about 90 percent white. They face charges including deprivation of rights and obstruction of justice; all four have pleaded not guilty.

The indictment says the defendants were protected by a leader identified as co-conspirator 1 — a reference to Gallo, according to his attorney — who turned away efforts to investigate the men's conduct, threatened potential witnesses and ordered that police commissioners not be allowed in the station without his approval.

His attorney, Jon Einhorn, said that the allegations are not true and that if Gallo is charged, he will be vindicated.

Gallo, now 64, became East Haven's chief in 1998 after leaving the police department in neighboring New Haven, where he had been put in charge of the dog pound after a falling-out with new leadership.

By many accounts he became close friends with Maturo, a former firefighter who hired him. Together, they weathered several episodes of racial friction, including NAACP criticism of a police shooting that killed a black man.

This is not Maturo's first stint as East Haven mayor. He was first elected in 1997 but lost a close race in 2007. Gallo proved to be a shrewd infighter in clashes with the new mayor, Democrat April Capone Almon, who had criticized the police department during the campaign.

Almon was arrested by town police in July 2009 and accused of interfering with police who were towing cars at a beach. Several media outlets have reported that her arrest is now under review by a federal grand jury.

But when Almon put Gallo on administrative leave in April 2010, citing a federal investigation into the department, it was the new mayor who paid a political price.

Gallo insisted the suspension was politically motivated, filing a lawsuit accusing Almon of a "personal vendetta." The police union voted no confidence in Almon, and dozens of people demonstrated outside town hall in July to protest what they called a lack of support for the police department. Last November, Almon lost an election rematch with Maturo by a couple dozen votes.

"It was a determining factor in the election," said Paul Hongo, a deputy director in Almon's administration, who said polling data indicated voters were unhappy with the handling of the police department.

Almon has declined to comment, but Hongo said she had been frustrated that the community did not accept her explanations of the severity of the situation. He said a handful of powerful people managed to lead the town astray by casting the issue as a political dispute.

"I think now the community is starting to see, 'Wow, there was really something here,'" Hongo said.

Within days of returning to office, Maturo reinstated Gallo as chief. FBI agents had raided Gallo's locked office less than two weeks earlier.

The mayor continued to stand by Gallo after the blistering report from the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department in December that accused East Haven police of systematically discriminating against Latinos.

Investigators also blasted the department for outdated policies and a lack of supervision. Still, when the officers were arrested on Jan. 24, Maturo said the town has "a great police department," although he faced more criticism for saying he would eat tacos as a way of doing something for the Latino community.

In announcing Gallo's retirement earlier this week, Maturo praised Gallo and as a devoted public servant who made a selfless decision to resign.

Maturo is not obligated to follow the commission's recommendation that Gallo be fired and is expected to ignore it.

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Associated Press writer Stephen Singer contributed to this report.