Judge may end city police oversight

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by Michael P. Mayko
Connecticut Post

August 6, 2008

NEW HAVEN — Twenty-five years of federal court oversight over the Bridgeport Police Department regarding its treatment of black officers may be coming to an end.

This morning, U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton will hear a joint proposal submitted by the city and the Bridgeport Guardians, an organization of black officers, to return the power of assigning, disciplining and rotating officers back to the police chief for a 17-month probationary period.

Once that period ends, the judge will conduct a hearing to determine its success.

"We're optimistic the department will prove to be fair and competent in taking back supervision and management of its functions," said Antonio Ponvert IV, a lawyer with Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, which has been representing the Guardians for 30 years. "If not, then that will be the subject of another hearing in December 2009."

City Attorney Mark Anastasi declined to comment on the proposal. William Wenzel, a private lawyer hired by the city, to help it bring federal court management to an end, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

One group that may object to the proposed order is the Bridgeport Police Union.

Its lawyer, Harry B. Elliott Jr., has not signed onto it and may voice his concerns at the hearing. He did not return calls for comment Tuesday.

The six-page proposal arises out of several closed-door sessions between the parties mediated by U.S. Magistrate Judge Holly B. Fitzsimmons. Mayor Bill Finch attended some of the sessions.

"We are going to give the department a chance to make things work for the betterment of the community," said Sgt. William Bailey, president of the Guardians. "After 30 years of supervision, it's time for everybody to move on and see if the department can stand on its own. I have confidence in the chief."

The chief, Bryan Norwood, is Bridgeport's second black police chief in 30 years. What concerns Bailey is many of the city's black officers will able to retire in the next few years.

But he said the proposed order does create funding for recruitment and allows the city to suspend hiring rules to bring in more minority recruits.

It also calls for the appointment of an assistant chief, returns the power of discipline, assignments and rotation to the police chief and provides $600,000 to create programs to recruit police officers from Bridgeport's minority community, as well as train, mentor and tutor black officers so they could be promoted to supervisory positions.

"The Guardians gave up a lot based on good-faith promises of the city," said Ted Meekins, a retired black police officer, who was a plaintiff in the suit filed in 1978. "Now we'll see if the city lives up to its promises. If not, we'll be back in court."

Among the important financial aspects for Bridgeport is the decision by Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder not to seek more than $1 million in legal fees and costs it incurred representing the Guardians over three decades. Instead the firm will ask for only $300,000 and donate that money to the special recruitment, training, mentoring and tutoring fund. The city will add $300,000. Their money will be donated in six installments of $50,000, beginning in 2010. The proposal returns discretion to the police chief as to how officers are rotated through the various geographical sectors of the city and how specialized units like the Tactical Narcotics Team, K-9 and Emergency Services Unit, are staffed.

It also returns disciplinary power to the chief.

The assignment, discipline and promotion of black officers were issues that led to the suit being filed in 1978 against the city, its police board and its police superintendent.

"The department was in total disarray when we brought this suit in 1978," said Meekins, now president of the East Side Community Council. "Opportunities were not there and discipline was harsh."

Meekins experienced the discipline frequently by being dealt harsh suspensions, many of which he felt were in retaliation for bringing the suit.

Following a trial, the late U.S. District Judge T.F. Gilroy Daly found widespread discrimination within the department. Particularly, he found black officers were disciplined more harshly, assigned and kept in the most crime-ridden areas, and rarely promoted or put on specialized teams.

In January 1983, he appointed William Clendenen, a New Haven lawyer, to serve as the court's special master in receiving, hearing and ruling on discrimination complaints. As the years dragged on, problems persisted and the city became remiss in complying with court orders, and Clendenen's authority grew.

Eventually, the power of the chief and the police board to discipline black officers fell to Clendenen. Over a quarter century, he probably heard hundreds of cases and was paid tens of thousands of dollars by the city for his time.

Arterton inherited the case following Daly's death.

In 2003, she became frustrated by the city's frequent lateness in filing reports documenting the sex, race and color of officers as they were rotated through the police department's specialized units. She threatened to fine the city $500 for each day it was late.

By May 2004, the city was 860 days late, prompting a threatened $430,000 fine.

Later that month, Clendenen recommended the city be fined $515,000 for being 1,030 days late in establishing and implementing new policies dealing with sexual harassment, threats and intimidation and graffiti and slurs within the department.

He noted that "more than seven years have elapsed" since he ordered the city to revise the 1990 policies for harassment, threats and slurs.

Clendenen chided the city for its "dismal record of complying with clear court mandates concerning discipline reports, discipline delays as well as rotation reports."

But in court documents filed this week Wenzel claims things have changed. He pointed out the city has a black police chief, 15 percent of all supervisors are black and 32 percent of all supervisors are minorities.

"There simply exists no further need for the protections offered by the 1983 remedy order," Wenzel wrote.

He advised the judge that the federal court supervision of the department's operation is "an unnecessary burden and diminishes the effectiveness of a law enforcement agency already stretched too thin by limited financial resources and a challenging urban environment."