By John Christoffersen
NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The mayor of a working-class city roiled by allegations of police discrimination against Hispanics faced scathing criticism Wednesday from officials including the governor for saying he “might have tacos” as a way to do something for the community.
The comments by East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo brought unwanted attention to the leadership of the New Haven suburb, where four police officers were arrested Tuesday by the FBI on charges including deprivation of rights and obstruction of justice. The mayor was also criticized for his recent reappointment of police Chief Leonard Gallo, who was apparently referred to in the indictment as a co-conspirator.
The four officers are accused of waging a campaign of harassment against Latino residents and businesses, including assaulting people while they were handcuffed and intimidating people who tried to investigate or report misconduct allegations. All four have pleaded not guilty.
The taco comment came as Maturo, a Republican, was being interviewed late Tuesday by a reporter from New York’s WPIX-TV, Mario Diaz, who asked, “What are you doing for the Latino community today?”
Maturo’s response: “I might have tacos when I go home; I’m not quite sure yet.”
He initially defended his response and said it was being unfairly twisted. But he later apologized, saying he’d had a long day of interviews.
Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said the comments are “repugnant.”
“They represent either a horrible lack of judgment or worse, an underlying insensitivity to our Latino community that is unacceptable. Being tired is no excuse. 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. And he needs to do it today,” Malloy said.
Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra, a native of Puerto Rico, said he was “disgusted” by Maturo’s comment. East Haven Democratic Town Committee Chairman Gene Ruocco called for Maturo’s resignation.
The comment “goes to the root of the racial profiling allegations here in East Haven,” Ruocco said in a statement. “Everyone knows the seriousness of this matter and for him, as the leader of our community, to say something so utterly insensitive is a complete disgrace.”
East Haven resident Marcia Chacon said she and other Latinos in her community were offended by Maturo’s comment.
“This is an insult against us,” she said. “I thought ‘Wow, here we are in East Haven, and this is the person who is supposed to help us.’”
Racial profiling complaints surged in recent years in East Haven, a predominantly white suburb on Long Island Sound where the Hispanic population more than doubled in size over a decade to 10.3 percent of its 28,000 people. Last month, a lengthy civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice concluded there was a pattern of biased policing in East Haven, where only one of the roughly 50 police officers speaks Spanish.
Maturo released a statement Wednesday to express his “sincerest apologies” to East Haven and its Latino residents and business owners for the taco comment, asking residents to “have faith in me and our community as we address the challenges arising out of the past days’ events. Unfortunately, I let the stress of the situation get the best of me and inflamed what is already a serious and unfortunate situation. I regret my insensitive comment and realize that it is my job to lead by example,” he said.