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Chief Cites Obstacles To Consent Decree

April 2, 2005
By MATT BURGARD, Courant Staff Writer

Hartford's police chief took the witness stand Friday in a longstanding lawsuit accusing the police department of failing to be more accountable to the public.

Chief Patrick J. Harnett, who took over the department last June, testified in a hearing at federal court in Hartford in a case that dates from the early 1970s.

The Cintron vs. Vaughn lawsuit, filed by a group of residents and community activists, was resolved through a 1973 consent decree that required the city to take steps to be more accountable and responsive to the community, particularly in hiring more minority officers and investigating civilian complaints of police misconduct.

Hearings are underway to determine if the department is living up to the requirements of the consent decree. The hearings are being overseen by Richard Bieder, a "special master" appointed by Senior U.S. District Judge Ellen Bree Burns.

The group of residents who are plaintiffs in the suit want the court to find the city in contempt for failing to meet the requirements of the consent decree; the city wants the court to nullify the decree.

Harnett was questioned Friday about his compliance with an order, issued by Burns last June as part of an update to the decree, to appoint at least eight investigators to the department's internal affairs division. The judge issued the order as a way to help relieve a backlog of civilian complaints in the division and to make sure each complaint is reviewed thoroughly.

Harnett said the judge's order was issued about a week after he took over the department, and he has since been trying to make sure the department is complying with the many requirements of the consent decree.

He said he has appointed four sergeants to the internal affairs division, along with a supervising lieutenant and an assistant chief who devotes about 20 percent of his time to internal affairs matters.

Harnett said he has not been able to appoint eight investigators to the division because of staff shortages, which have forced him to assign most of his personnel to more pressing assignments such as patrol and violent crime investigations.

Harnett said he is still learning how to incorporate the decree's requirements into the department's daily operations.

"I was just too new to the department when the order was issued, and I'm still too new, quite frankly," he said.

But some of the plaintiffs in the case, including former Deputy Mayor Nicholas Carbone, said the chief should have notified either the court or the plaintiffs to try to arrange a compromise.

"He never did anything to let us know he was having problems carrying out the requirements," Carbone said.

Harnett acknowledged that he didn't keep the plaintiffs informed.

"I didn't view it as my role to reach out to the plaintiffs," he said.

The chief is expected to continue testifying when hearings resume Tuesday morning.

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.
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