After three decades, city regains full control of police force

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by Tim Loh
Connecticut Post

December 21, 2010

BRIDGEPORT — Moments after the official swearing-in of the city's new police chief Monday afternoon, Mayor Bill Finch grabbed Joseph Gaudett Jr. by the shoulder.

"He's coming in at just the right time," Finch said, "because it's a normal department again."

Gaudett, a 28-year department veteran, was nodding his head. He knew he would soon inherit more power over the police force than any chief he's served under in his career.

That became evident hours earlier, when U.S. District Judge Janet Arterton declared that the federal government's 27-year oversight of Bridgeport's police department has come to an end. Her announcement capped a 17-month transition period, and Arterton said she will submit a written decision on the matter before the new year.

The ruling returns to the police chief the power to administer, assign and discipline his officers -- powers which were revoked after a federal judge ruled in 1983 that the department was discriminating against its minority officers.

At the time, the late U.S. District Judge T.F. Gilroy Daly had just learned during a weeklong trial that all but one of Bridgeport's 33 black officers were assigned to patrol the city's most dangerous neighborhoods, with the remaining officer working in the record room. None had a supervisory position.

So Daly transferred oversight of the department's handling of its minority officers to a special master, and selected New Haven attorney William Clendenen for the job. One of Clendenen's chief duties was to hear all complaints of racial discrimination from within the department. The city was forced to pay Clendenen for his services.

Clendenen served in that role for nearly three decades. He did not return a phone call Monday seeking comment.

While under federal oversight, the department experienced a boom in minority participation -- both in numbers and in those officers' ascendancy to higher ranks -- Gaudett said Monday that it has hurt his ability to transform the way officers conduct business.

"At one point every nine months, every officer would have to rotate through a particular beat," he said, referring to the officers' neighborhood assignments. "That didn't lend itself to community policing, because you have so little time to get to know your area. But now we'll have the ability to make assignments and to leave an officer in a beat."

The police chief will now also handle any officers' complaints of racial discrimination which, he and Finch were quick to point out, have dropped considerably in recent years.

Things were different in 1970, when the handful of black officers on the force formed the Bridgeport Guardians, which spearheaded the legal action against the department. The Guardians filed its first suit against the department in 1972, according to Ted Meekins, a retired black officer who was on hand Monday afternoon.

"When we started, there were 10 black officers and no Hispanic or woman officers," the 69-year-old said. "And there were no promotions for us. No blacks above the rank of patrolman."

A decade later, the Guardians, having retained the services of the Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder law firm, won the landmark trial that ushered in the federal oversight.

Asked to reflect on the Guardians' four decades of effort, Meekins said: "We went from not being able to patrol in white communities, from being limited to housing projects, to where we are today. We've had two black police chiefs and one Hispanic chief, and I'm looking forward to better days ahead."

Then he draped his arm around the Guardians' current president, Lt. Lonnie Blackwell, and added, "I see victory."

Blackwell joined the police force 10 years ago, he said, and was promoted to his current rank about three years ago.

"For me, this is a fresh start," Blackwell said. "We like to see the department reflect the demographics of the city."

He said he thinks the current department succeeds in that area, estimating that it has nearly 60 black officers in a department of about 400 officers. That equates to about 15 percent, while the 2000 U.S. Census reported that nearly one-third of Bridgeport's residents are black. Blackwell said there are now about 140 Hispanic officers.

In addition to racial balance in the department, Meekins has another reason for thinking positive. Eyeing Gaudett across the mayor's office Monday, he recalled a time in the early 1980s. "I was Joe's training officer," he said with a smile.