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Standoff Not Helping City Police

By Stan Simpson
March 23, 2005

The only point of agreement in a three-decades long consent decree obligating Hartford to fix its dysfunctional police department is that plaintiffs and defendants are currently in "adversarial mode."

The contentious nature of the dealings means that a special master appointed by federal Judge Ellen Bree Burns will have to work things out starting next week. That may not bode well for Hartford when you consider that the city of Bridgeport last year was slapped with a $945,000 fine for being in contempt of a federal court order.

The fine was in connection with a 25-year-old lawsuit alleging rampant discrimination in Bridgeport's police department. Sound familiar? The Cintron v. Vaughn decree Hartford is under came after a spate of police shootings of people of color in the late 1960s. The decree affirmed that new practices were needed to recruit and promote officers who represented the racial makeup of a diverse city, and that more cohesive standards of police conduct were necessary.

Subsequent amendments, meetings and letters kept the ball rolling. Sort of.

In December, lawyer Joseph Moniz filed a contempt of court order against the city. He says Hartford is flouting Burns' edict and is stonewalling efforts to promote minority hiring in the HPD, improve supervision of officers and investigate citizen complaints against police. The city disagrees, saying that when it presents its case to lawyer Richard Bieder, the special master appointed by Burns to oversee the matter, it will be understood that Hartford is making strides in the areas of contention.

So why hasn't the city communicated those efforts to the plaintiffs? Because of personalities and egos, of course. And because the city has indeed been dragging things out, spurred now only by a contempt motion.

Both sides, naturally, deny that personality clashes have contributed to the inertia. But the citizens group pushing reforms includes an array of persistent city advocates, critics and gadflies, including Ramon Arroyo, a political operative once fired from his job at city hall; Alyssa Peterson; former Mayor Nick Carbone; North End matriarch Trude Mero; Carmen Rodriguez; and some religious types.

They're politically savvy, astute and know what buttons to push to get the city's attention. They can work your last nerve with their pontificating and grandstanding, but in this case, they're right to get in the city's grille about accountability for the actions of its officers.

Add up the legal complaints against Hartford officers, from citizens and fellow cops alike, and you're talking millions of dollars in settlements and attorney fees.

The city and plaintiffs had agreed to develop a computer system that tracks complaints against cops. City Corporation Counsel John Rose says that has started. The plaintiffs say that's news to them.

An affirmative action guideline for the police department was supposed to be presented. The plaintiffs say they're waiting. Rose says Hartford is in the midst of revising a new citywide hiring practice.

The two sides previously agreed that the internal affairs department would be staffed by one commander and eight investigators. It hasn't happened.

According to Rose, who says the decree is outdated, budget issues and practicality have been at play. But he insists that the backlog of cases hamstringing the department has been significantly reduced.

Police officers have been fired and demoted for bad behavior in recent years, and there have been several African American police chiefs - and a Latino was recently promoted to captain - since the 1973 decree. So, yeah, you can call that progress.

But the HPD remains a department with deep-rooted problems.

Former detective Nicholas Russo was awarded close to $600,000 in damages last week from a federal jury that believed he was fired in 1997 by the department because he blew the whistle on corruption there.

Last summer, a white police officer accused a white lieutenant of ordering his charges to stop people of color downtown who were not dressed in a suit.

In 2003, an officer was fired after it was determined that he lied about being in danger when he shot a suspect in a chase.

Six years ago, a white police officer fatally shot in the back a fleeing black teenager who was the suspect in an assault. Subsequent investigations cleared the officer of any wrongdoing. This week that officer, Robert Allan, will be promoted to sergeant. Oh my!

So, while the legal posturing continues about the decree, the reason it was ordered is as relevant as ever.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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