Court to end oversight of police

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by Michael P. Mayko
Connecticut Post

August 7, 2008

NEW HAVEN — The power to administer, assign and discipline his officers will be returning to Bridgeport's police chief for the first time in 25 years this fall.

"I've expressed the view on many occasions that there is a time to conclude court jurisdiction of a governing entity," U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton said during a nearly four-hour-long hearing.

So after tweaking a proposed order and agreeing to oversee a 17-month implementation, Arterton indicated that the 25-year control the federal court and its special master, William Clendenen, have exerted over the way the department has handled its black officers may soon be over.

The judge said the way the city implements and handles the changes will "put the court in a position to make a decision that the remedy order be vacated, needs modification or be left alone."

That will happen during a December 2009 hearing.

On Tuesday, lawyers for the city and the Bridgeport Guardians, an organization representing black officers, formalized a proposed order that could bring an end to the 25-year-old case. Following a weeklong trial a quarter century ago, the late U.S. District Judge T.F. Gilroy Daly found widespread racial discrimination within the Bridgeport police department. The judge's finding was based on the fact that of the 33 black officers in the department in 1982, all but one was assigned to patrol the most crime-ridden areas of the city. The other was assigned to the record room. None had supervisory positions.

The proposed order, which could end the case "is an opportunity for the city to get its act together," said Ted Meekins, a retired black police officer and a plaintiff in the original proceedings. "The union has the opportunity to make things happen or hold up the process. All the Guardians have wanted for the past 30 years is a more level playing field."

The union, represented by Harry Elliott, voiced some concerns over the proposed order during Wednesday's hearing.

On Wednesday, Arterton learned the city now has 68 black officers, which constitutes 16.27 percent of its 418-member police department in a city where a third of its residents are black. The department also has 113 Hispanic officers and 52 female officers.

Broken down further, the department has a black chief. None of the four deputy chiefs are black. It has two black captains out of nine and two black lieutenants out of 21. It has 10 black sergeants out of 65 and five black detectives out of 41.

Arterton said the nearly doubling of black officers shows "progress," but the department's record in promoting blacks "is at best mixed — not what one might hope would be the result of 25 years of court intervention."

After hearing opposition from Elliott, the union's lawyer, to some aspects of the proposed order, Arterton called a brief recess. During the break, Antonio Ponvert, the Guardians' lawyer; City Attorney Mark Anastasi; Deputy City Attorney Arthur Laske III and William Wenzel, a private lawyer hired by the city, huddled and agreed to some changes. Arterton asked that a final version be submitted to her by Aug. 20. She indicated an intention to put the proposal in place by the second week of September.

"This is tremendous news for the city of Bridgeport," said Mayor Bill Finch. "The impact of this will be that we will be able to control our own police department — a move that will help us fight crime more effectively while simultaneously saving the money the city has been paying the special master since 1983."

It is believed that Clendenen received tens of thousands of dollars for conducting several hundred proceedings over the past quarter century.

Earlier Elliott expressed concern that the city would use some of the leverage it gained in assignments to diminish the union's bargaining tactics.

As it now stands the proposed order will allow:

- Bridgeport to suspend the use of hiring recruits in the order they place on the hiring list.

- The city will allocate $300,000 in increments of $50,000 over six years beginning in 2010 to help recruit minority candidates.

- The law firm of Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, which represented the Guardians since the suit was filed in 1978, will forego more than $1 million in legal fees and court costs. Instead they will accept payment of $300,000 and then use that money to create and administer a program that will recruit, mentor, tutor and train black officers.

- The chief will have the authority to choose 50 percent of the officers to serve in the nearly dozen specialized units like K-9, Scuba, Emergency Response, Tactical Narcotics Team and Marine. The other 50 percent will be chosen based on seniority and qualifications.

- The chief will have the authority to assign officers to geographical areas within the guidelines of the collective bargaining agreement with the union and concerns raised by the Guardians.

- Handling complaints of racial discrimination will be taken away from Clendenen, a New Haven lawyer appointed in 1982 to hear such matters, and given to the chief.

- The city will write a non-discrimination policy for the police department that must be approved by the judge.

"We're trying to move forward and working with the chief to do so," said Sgt. William Bailey, president of the Guardians. "My main concern is that 50 percent of the current number of black officers will be eligible to retire in the next few years. We need to do a more effective job of recruiting more minority officers."

The proposal stems from months of closed-door meetings between the two sides, which U.S. Magistrate Judge Holly B. Fitzsimmons mediated.

"Based on the proceedings today, the city is confident the court will be issuing an order that reflects the significant progress the Bridgeport Police Department has made in recent years particularly under the leadership of Police Chief Norwood," said City Attorney Mark Anastasi. "We look forward to the court returning full operational control to the department in the foreseeable future."