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Connecticut mayor apologizes for 'taco' comment

By David Ariosto, CNN
January 26, 2012 -- Updated 1717 GMT (0117 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Joseph Maturo Jr. asks public to consider difficulties of arrested officers
  • NEW: East Haven mayor blamed stress for what he later described as a flippant comment
  • NEW: A restaurant manager says police routinely harassed Latino workers, customers
  • Four East Haven police officers were arrested for their alleged roles in abusing Latino residents

Read more about this report from CNN affiliate WPIX.

(CNN) -- The mayor of East Haven, Connecticut, apologized Wednesday for saying he would help Latinos in his town by eating tacos, a remark that sparked anger from state officials and immigrant advocates already fuming over allegations of police mistreatment of Latinos in his city.

"My sincerest apologies go out to the East Haven community and, in particular, the Latino community for the insensitive and off-color comment that I made to WPIX reporter Mario Diaz yesterday regarding the recent events affecting our community and our police department," Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr. said in a statement. "Unfortunately, I let the stress of the situation get the best of me and inflamed what is already a serious and unfortunate situation."

He was referring to the arrests of four East Haven police officers by FBI agents Tuesday for their alleged roles in abusing Latino residents and business owners, performing illegal searches, making false arrests and harassing immigrant rights advocates.

The arrests are the first to stem from a federal investigation into racial profiling in the city and follow a scathing December report from the U.S. Justice Department that accused the town's police of engaging in "discriminatory policing against Latinos."

In the interview later Tuesday, Diaz pointed out that there were no Latino officers on the police force.

Cops accused of racial profiling
FBI arrests four East Haven cops
New Haven's history of racial profiling

"And your point being?" Maturo responded.

When asked then what he planned to do for the Latino community in light of the discrimination allegations, the mayor said, "I might have tacos when I go home, I'm not quite sure yet."

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Wednesday slammed Maturo's comment as "repugnant" and "unacceptable."

Malloy said the remarks "represent either a horrible lack of judgment or worse, an underlying insensitivity to our Latino community that is unacceptable."

"He owes an apology to the community, and more importantly, he needs to show what he's going to do to repair the damage he's done," the governor said. "And he needs to do it today."

Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra added Wednesday that he was "disgusted by Mayor Maturo's comment."

He said Maturo's words suggested that the accusations of discrimination were "dismissed and disregarded."

"Many have worked diligently to correct the painful history of racism in this country, and Mayor Maturo's comments are a disappointing example of how far we still have to go to," said Segarra.

Maturo on Tuesday called the arrests of the officers "unfortunate" and said his office "stands behind the East Haven Police Department."

Following his apology a day later, Maturo then asked the public to consider the difficulties the arrested officers and their families must be going through in the wake of the scandal.

"It's really a devastation to them," he told CNN. "It's my apology to the communities out there; whether they're Latino or not is secondary to what our town is suffering and going through at this particular time."

Maturo made no mention of any of the alleged Latino victims in the case.

"What I apologized most to (WPIX reporter) Mario was that I think I might have hurt him personally, and I can understand that," the mayor added. "Being of Italian descent, there's been plenty of people that have said to me, 'Oh you live in East Haven,' and we all know what that refers to. Or, 'Oh you're Italian; you must like meatballs and spaghetti.' We all know what that refers to. And sometimes I take those comments to heart, (even) when I realize sometimes there was nothing meant by them."

"I've been talking since 6 o'clock yesterday morning," Maturo added, saying he had done more than a dozen interviews. He later claimed that his comment had been taken out of context.

On Tuesday, the mayor cautioned against the blaming police prematurely.

"They're innocent until proven guilty," he said. Maturo added that he doesn't believe allegations of such systemic discrimination in East Haven are accurate.

"We have an open community here," he said, speaking on behalf of the police department.

However, Maturo said his town "is prepared to do all that is necessary to address the consequences of (the) grand jury indictment."

Still, many Latino residents of East Haven say they've for years had to contend with an overly aggressive police force.

"They always come by and bother us," said Esdras Marin, a manager at La Bamba, a Latino-owned bar and restaurant named in the indictment.

"Police come in two or three times a month and ask everyone in the restaurant for their identification," he said. "And if you don't have it, they threaten us and say they're going to call the immigration office."

The effect, Marin said, has left many in the town's Latino community fearful of East Haven authorities.

One incident occurred in La Bamba's parking lot on November 22, 2008, the indictment said, when officer Dennis Spaulding allegedly handcuffed an individual on false pretenses and threw him down onto the pavement, causing a "deep cut" to the man's chin.

Spaulding then allegedly kicked the man repeatedly, and later fabricated a false report to "conceal and cover-up his assault," it said.

Others, such as Chino Perez, an East Haven hairdresser at Maly's Salon, said he's seen police harassing individuals just outside his salon.

He called the mayor's comments racist, and that while he accepts his apology, he said Maturo can't easily be trusted.

East Haven resident Carolina Borja added that police have also commonly stopped her Latino friends for questioning.

It "has to change," she said.

Though Tuesday's arrests and Maturo's errant comment have likely blemished the reputation of this New Haven suburb, there have been changes since the Justice Department report, the mayor noted.

An independent commission of community members, external consultants and former law enforcement officials has since been formed to adjust police patrol and complaint policies.

The mayor cited a series of reforms, pointing to a revised East Haven police handbook -- the first update since 1972.

"It was an outdated book," Maturo said.

According to 2010 census data, East Haven has a population of some 29,000 people, with about 10.3% identifying as Hispanic or Latino.

Federal authorities, meanwhile, are asking the public for additional tips surrounding alleged discrimination and abuse, offering anonymity to those would-be tipsters concerned about their legal resident status.

CNN's Jason Carroll and Sheila Steffen in East Haven, Connecticut contributed to this report

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