- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 24, 2012

EAST HAVEN, Conn. Four police officers, including the president of the local police union, were arrested Tuesday by the FBI on charges that they assaulted illegal immigrants and covered up abuses in a New Haven suburb, where a federal investigation found life was made miserable for Hispanics.

The East Haven officers assaulted individuals while they were handcuffed, unlawfully searched Hispanic businesses, and harassed and intimidated individuals, including advocates, witnesses and other officers who tried to investigate or report misconduct or abuse the officers are said to have committed, according to the federal indictment.

Federal authorities began investigating police in 2009 in East Haven, where the federal probe last month documented a pattern of abuse. The Hispanic population had doubled in the past decade to more than 10 percent of the seaside city’s 28,000 people, but Hispanic business owners said rough treatment by police drove away many newcomers from Mexico and Ecuador.

The arrests were welcomed by Hispanic business owners in East Haven, including Luis Rodriguez, an immigrant from Ecuador who had complained of harassment by police at his Los Amigos Grocery store.

“They should have to pay, not with many years, but enough to make an example of them. They should not abuse their power,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “All I ever wanted was to be left in peace.”

Officers Dennis Spaulding, David Cari and Jason Zullo and Sgt. John Miller, president of the police union, are charged with conspiracy, deprivation of rights and obstruction of justice.

Federal officials say the officers denied Hispanic residents and their advocates the right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures, the right to not be arrested and detained without probable cause and the right to not be arrested on false and misleading evidence.

“In simple terms, these defendants behaved like bullies with badges,” said Janice Fedarcyk, assistant director of the New York office of the FBI.

Officer Zullo allegedly described taking joy in singling out Hispanics, telling Officer Spaulding in a 2008 exchange quoted by the indictment that he liked harassing drivers and referred to “persons who have drifted to this country on rafts made of chicken wings and are now residing” in East Haven.

Sgt. Miller repeatedly slapped a man handcuffed in his car, while Officer Spaulding threw a man to the ground and repeatedly kicked him while he was handcuffed, according to the indictment. Mayor Joseph Maturo said the four men were arrested around 6 a.m. Tuesday at their homes and at the police department.

Donald Cretella, Sgt. Miller’s attorney, said his client has been honored with awards and risked his life in shootouts. “John Miller is a hero in East Haven,” he said. “He’s decorated. He’s a wonderful family man. Hopefully, we’ll clear his name.”

Frank Riccio Jr., Officer Spaulding’s attorney, said his client is an exemplary police officer. “At this early stage, it’s our position Mr. Spaulding is not guilty of the charges. He’s been nothing but an exemplary police officer. That’s why this is shocking.”

It wasn’t clear who was representing Officers Cari and Zullo.

• AP writer Michael Melia contributed to this report.