Conn. officer accused of brutality

Union officials say 'good cop' does some tough work

By John Christoffersen
Associated Press / November 30, 2008
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NEW HAVEN - A New Haven police officer is facing two federal lawsuits accusing him of brutality and an illegal strip search, while records show he has been subject to a history of complaints of excessive force.

Union officials call Officer Dennis O'Connell "a good cop" who works in tough, violent neighborhoods. But the coordinator for the department's Civilian Review Board said complaints against O'Connell are high.

"One person with eight complaints of the same type could be perceived as excessive," said Reginald Thomas, coordinator of the Civilian Review Board. "It's not the average for a New Haven police officer."

A telephone message was left for O'Connell with Sergeant Louis G. Cavaliere, president of the police union, who said O'Connell declined to comment. O'Connell has been on the force for about a decade and makes about $59,000 per year.

"This is not Mayberry USA or Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," Cavaliere said. "You're dealing with the scum of the earth when you're dealing with people with drugs and guns."

The department has a recent history of scandal. Three detectives were sent to prison for planting evidence and stealing money from crime scenes.

An independent review of the department found problems with investigations of complaints against police. Many cases were closed because those who filed the complaints did not pursue them, according to the report last year by the Police Executive Research Forum, a national group that evaluates police operations.

In one of the lawsuits, five men and a woman say O'Connell used excessive force. One man said he was repeatedly punched in the face and sprayed with chemicals while he was handcuffed, while another said he was beaten unconscious.

Dramese Fair, who is black, also filed a federal lawsuit earlier this year accusing O'Connell and two other officers of subjecting him to an illegal strip search last year.

Eight other residents have filed complaints in recent years accusing O'Connell of excessive force and other misconduct, according to records obtained by the Associated Press.

Attorney Paul Garlinghouse, attorney for the six plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit, said his clients filed complaints with police, but no action was taken. His lawsuit seeks $9.5 million in damages.

None of the eight complaints resulted in any disciplinary action against O'Connell. Internal affairs investigators said the alleged victims did not pursue their complaints or they were unfounded or, in one case, missed a deadline for filing.

Police reports on the incidents contradict versions by the complainants. One of the complainants pushed O'Connell and threw a punch at him, and O'Connell said another man burned him with a cigarette, according to police reports.

Valerie Myles, who alleged that officers beat her and her cousin, said she did try to pursue her complaint but "evidently it disappeared." A police report charging her cousin with drug violations was filled out by Detective Justen Kasperzyk, who was sentenced to 15 months in prison for planting drug evidence and stealing money from a crime scene.

"They are hot to stamp 'not pursued' on these cases," Garlinghouse said.

Fair's lawsuit accuses the city of postponing a hearing to avoid scrutiny of illegal searches and refusing to act on disciplinary complaints against the officers.

City officials said they could not comment on pending litigation. They also declined to comment on complaints that have been closed.

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