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Hero cop who help bust East Haven corruption targeted

January 18, 2019 GMT

EAST HAVEN -- Six years after the indictments of local police officers for harassment, conspiracy and excessive force against Latinos, the wounds of a bias scandal that made national news still fester within the East Haven Police Department.

While some local law enforcement personnel stayed on and have risen in rank, including Chief Edward Lennon, others, like Officer Vincent Ferrara — one of a few in the department who helped the FBI ferret out the four crooked cops — are trying to hang on.

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A federal settlement after the bias investigation supposedly protected Ferrara from any form of retaliation, even subtle snubbing, for cooperating with the U.S. Department of Justice.

But Lennon is in the process of firing Ferraro for what the embattled officer’s lawyers say are relatively minor offenses while performing a tough job during an 11-year town career at a time when he is being treated for a life-threatening disease.

According to recent sworn depositions, some East Haven police officers engaged in a pattern of both obvious and discrete harassment against Ferrara.

He was the only on-duty officer not informed of a mid-shift Thanksgiving dinner at headquarters in 2015. When his wife later called to complain, another officer cut off her phone call at headquarters.

When Ferrara requested routine backup during a motor vehicle stop, it took a responding officer more than half an hour to drive to the scene. Other police officers, including those now in supervisory roles, allegedly told young officers to avoid Ferrara.

In hundreds of pages of sworn depositions made in response to Ferrara’s pending civil lawsuit against more than a dozen people including Mayor Joseph Maturo Jr., police admit that Ferrara was among those labeled “a rat” for assisting in the investigation that led to the Jan. 18, 2012, indictments and subsequent felony verdicts against Sgt. John Miller and Officers Dennis Spaulding, David Cari and Jason Zullo.

A report that the East Haven Police Commission is reviewing as it appears on-track to fire Ferrara was prepared by Internal Affairs Detective Robert Brockett, who acknowledged that he had been accused of calling Ferrara a “rat” and telling a local resident that he would not backup Ferrara on any calls.

There was never an internal probe of those allegations.

Police Chief wanted evidence of outside work

Brockett, who roasted a turkey for the potluck holiday dinner in 2015, told Ferrara’s lead attorney, James S. Brewer of Hartford, that he did not know why Ferrara wasn’t invited to the event, for which several on-duty officers also prepared side dishes. While he testified that the invitation was broadcast over the police radio system, another officer said it was strictly a telephone-and-text invitation, and Ferrara was left out.

While denying he used the rodent term against Ferrara when he was a street patrolman three years ago, Brockett testified that as an Internal Affairs (IA) detective, he first accepted a verbal order from Chief Lennon in the fall of 2017 to scour Ferrara’s departmental emails for evidence of possible on-duty work as a part-time salesman for a body armor company. Over three days Brockett said he found several emails from the company — Angel Armor — which are allowed under police-computer rules, but none that Ferrara sent on the company’s behalf.

What Brockett — like Lennon a defendant in Ferrara’s 14-month-old lawsuit — did find were seven photos of nude and partially clad topless women, sent by at least one woman to Ferrara’s police email, which Ferrara then forwarded to his personal email, in an alleged violation of departmental policies. The color pictures, presented recently to the Police Commission in thick loose-leaf notebooks, are the center of Lennon’s case to terminate Ferrara, who has been battling brain cancer and has been out of work for more than a year.

During a nearly two-hour interview with Brockett, Ferrara initially denied knowing the women, prompting the detective to probe deeper, looking among Ferrara’s Facebook friends. Brewer says Ferrara’s reticence could have been the result of medication he was taking for the severe headaches he suffered in the days before his brain-cancer diagnosis in December 2017, just days after Brockett’s interview.

This, and a 2016 incident involving a previous excessive-force altercation with a 17-year-old on a bicycle, is the center of Lennon’s attempt to terminate the ailing cop, who was put on paid administrative leave in early December 2017 and locked out of the agency’s computer system.

Ferrara’s pending civil lawsuit is against Mayor Maturo; Chief Lennon, who was also the compliance officer in the wake of the federal investigation; Sal Brancati, the town’s director of administration and management; Joseph Coppola, assistant director of administration and management; Brent Larrabee, the former police chief; James Naccarato, deputy police chief; the town of East Haven, and the five-member Board of Police Commissioners.

“We need more time to make a fair job judging this,” said William Illingworth, chairman of the East Haven Police Commission, at the end of a recent 90-minute special meeting in which Stephen M. Sedor, a Pullman and Comley attorney hired by Lennon, laid out the case against Ferrara, including previous disciplinary reports.

“Through an investigation of that matter, Officer Ferrara not only denied that he did that, but then he denied knowing who those individuals were,” Sedor told the commission, adding that he “misrepresented” the facts during Brockett’s investigation and lied about his relationship with at least one woman. The forwarding of the photos themselves, Sedor said, violates the agency policy on transmitting “pornographic” images.

“From the chief’s standpoint, the only reasonable step to take would be the termination of the officer,” Sedor said during a half-hour presentation. “The concern also is that if the officer is not terminated, the message that it would send to the other officers about their conduct if they were to make this representation in IA interviews would be disastrous.”

“He has some blemishes on his record”

After Sedor’s presentation to the Police Commission, Norman Pattis, a nationally known civil-rights and employment attorney who represented Zullo during the town’s bias-and-harassment scandal, said it was ironic that he was back in town, now representing Ferrara, a former cooperating witness for the federal Department of Justice.

Pattis said that in his career, the employees who seem to get the toughest treatment are school teachers and police.

“And in proceedings like this, it’s easy to forget what we ask police officers to do on a day-to-day basis,” Pattis said. “He has some blemishes on his record but they’re not very different from what you see among other officers.”

Pattis said that during his 25 years in practice, police officials in particular tend to “massively overcharge” those up on disciplinary charges. He said that the case against Ferrara is essentially in three parts: the “salacious” photos; potential misuse of email; and the misleading statements.

He said that police officers are asked daily to make snap decisions and act based on their training. He noted that the incident with the teenager on a bicycle, whom Ferrara took to the ground and which first resulted in a 10-day departmental suspension, was reduced by the state Board of Labor and Arbitration to five days, indicating a possible overreaction of punishment by East Haven officials.

Pattis said that the photographs were not distributed beyond Ferrara’s own personal email. Pattis noted that “limited” use of personal email is permitted under departmental rules.

“There is no blanket prohibition on the use of email,” he said. “He sent the photos to himself. He did not bring shame or discredit on the town of East Haven.”

“Officers aren’t expected to be perfect,” Pattis said, noting that another charge against Ferrara centers on his failure to report allegedly unreasonable use of force by another cop. “They’re expected to be reasonable. These are not shocking uses of force. Force is used routinely, each and every day, on the job.”

Pattis proposed some kind of compromise suspension rather than termination.

“From these three instances of misconduct in his 11 years in East Haven, you don’t see a pattern of rampant lawlessness,” he said. “You don’t see a pattern of exposing the city to liability. Mr. Ferrara may have made mistakes and may not be perfect, but the question for you is: Does he warrant dismissal on a slight disciplinary matter? His most serious offense is the lack of candor. Could he have been more forthcoming? Yes. Mr. Ferrara wants to be a police officer.”

Ferrara, who late last year was cleared to return to work, is scheduled for an independent medical examination in early February. Pattis asked the commission to defer a decision until after that subsequent report.

“I think the town of East Haven owes him that much,” Pattis said. “Mr. Ferrara hung in there and he came to East Haven and he helped the town during a dark time and now he struggles with health issues. If he’s cleared to return to work, then make a decision. If he’s not clear to return to work, give him the opportunity to apply for a disability pension.”

He warned that if Ferrara gets fired, the action will add fuel to his pending federal lawsuit.