- Associated Press - Saturday, March 19, 2016

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) - State Superior Court Judge Eddie Rodriguez Jr. looked out at the audience gathered in City Hall to celebrate his friend, Armando “A.J.” Perez’s promotion to acting police chief.

Rodriguez reflected on the melting pot that is Connecticut’s largest city, where Perez will be the first Cuban-American top cop, replacing a white chief.

“It’s got so many backgrounds - so many religious and ethnic backgrounds,” Rodriguez said.

But for all the city’s diversity, the police department’s top 15 officers include only one black - a captain down the chain of command.

While Bridgeport has a new Hispanic police chief, whites still dominate the department’s upper echelons.

Yet blacks make up 34.6 percent of city residents, with Hispanics and Latinos at 38.2 percent and whites at 39.6 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Directly below Perez on the management pyramid are four deputy chiefs, three of whom are white, and one Hispanic.

Next come 10 captains, seven white, two Hispanic, and Capt. Roderick Porter, the lone African-American at that level. Porter could not be reached for comment.

Below the captains are 15 white lieutenants, three black lieutenants, two Hispanics and one Native American. Then there are 40 white sergeants, 11 Hispanics and eight black sergeants.

“I find that disturbing,” said George Mintz, president of the Greater Bridgeport NAACP for the past year.

Mintz said the civil rights organization in November raised the alarm with then-Police Chief Joseph Gaudett. Gaudett resigned March 1 to become a city emergency communications consultant, leading to Perez’s elevation by political ally Mayor Joe Ganim.

“I will have the same discussion with him (Perez),” Mintz said.

The problem was also highlighted by Ganim’s mayoral transition task force in its recent report. The group found only five of 18 officers promoted in 2014 and 2015 were minorities.

“Lack of diversity in the hiring and promotion processes … is a significant issue,” read the report.

Wilbur Chapman, Bridgeport’s first black police chief, recently returned to the city as Ganim’s public safety adviser.

Chapman insisted that, “The Bridgeport Police Department is not a bigoted department.”

In theory, Perez becoming chief should set off a domino effect of promotions. He ran the detective bureau, so that vacancy will need to be filled. Whoever replaces Perez will leave an opening, and so on.

Perez agreed the people in charge “should reflect the makeup of the community.

“I’ll be working hard to make sure that’s what we’re doing,” Perez said.

But intent is one thing. In many ways Perez’s hands are tied by challenges in attracting minority cadets, and the rules and regulations governing promotions that prevent the blatant leap-frogging of minorities over qualified white candidates.

Perez, while emphasizing his desire for greater diversity, emphasized he will not play favorites based on skin tone.

“I view everybody as blue,” Perez said. “I don’t see color.”

It is a nice sentiment. But in the real world, the color of a police department’s members often matters to citizens who rely on those men and women to protect them.

Take Ferguson, Mo., where the fatal shooting of a black man by a white police officer prompted riots. While two-thirds of the town’s residents are black, only three of its 50 cops were African-American.

“Ferguson is far from alone in this regard: There are police departments in every corner of the United States where there are severe mismatches between the racial composition of the police force and the demographics of the community at large,” the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission noted in 2015.

Those two agencies concluded that having a more diverse police department can increase trust with the community, which is “an essential part” of defusing tension, investigating and solving crimes, and giving citizens faith they are being treated fairly.

“A diverse police department is also less likely to be insular, and therefore can be more receptive to change,” said the federal agencies.

And diversity matters not just out on the streets, but back in the administrative offices at police headquarters, said Anne Li Kringen. Kringen is an assistant criminal justice professor at the University of New Haven and a former police officer in Alexandria, Va.

“They’re the people driving the mission or shape of the organization,” Kringen said.

But for years, African-Americans in particular were shut out of supervisory positions in Bridgeport.

In 1972, a 2-year old group of black officers dubbed the Bridgeport Guardians sued, alleging they were limited to patrols - often in the worst of the worst neighborhoods - and shut out of promotions.

It took a decade, but in a landmark 1983 ruling, a federal judge determined the department was guilty of discrimination. The judge assigned a special master, New Haven attorney William Clendenen, who monitored Bridgeport’s finest and the handling of the minority officers for 27 years, until the city regained full control in December 2010.

That was when Gaudett, then a 28-year veteran of the force, whose father also patrolled Bridgeport’s streets, was made chief by Mayor Bill Finch.

Ted Meekins was a black Bridgeport police officer who helped found the Guardians and remains a community leader in retirement.

Meekins recalled a day in the 1970s when, responding to a call, he was greeted at the door by a white woman who declared, “I wanna see a white officer.”

“There’s no question the lawsuit of the Guardians brought about diversity,” Meekins said. “Any minority that’s on the department benefited.”

Does Meekins believe Gaudett tried to maintain and increase diversity?

“With what he had,” Meekins said. “When it’s court ordered, the gloves are off. When not, you’ve got to adhere to union guidelines, best practices.”

One obvious solution to promoting more minorities is to recruit more minorities.

Of the 356 Bridgeport officers, 101 are Hispanic, 52 black.

Chapman served as chief from 2000 to 2005, the end of Ganim’s first tenure as mayor. After Ganim defeated Finch last year and returned to office Dec. 1, he hired Chapman to analyze the police, fire and other emergency services departments to improve overall public safety.

Chapman said it can be difficult to recruit black cops because of the distrust many in that community feel toward police stemming from the nation’s undeniable history of bigotry and racial strife.

“The challenge for the chief is to overcome those barriers,” Chapman said. “You can only promote what you have, so the chief’s job is to bring in more.”

The University of New Haven’s Kringen said police chiefs are in a tough position “because the hiring process for policing is so rigid. They know when it comes to hiring they can’t look at race.”

Of 1,013 qualified candidates who applied last year to be a Bridgeport police officer, 560, or 55 percent were white; 233, or 23 percent Hispanic; and 152, or 15 percent were black.

But as of July, when that group was pared down to a list of the top 100 candidates expected to be trained and hired over the next two years, Finch’s office said “sixty-one percent of the candidates are minorities, women and residents of Bridgeport. Thirty-nine percent are Caucasian males from out-of-town.”

The city made a special effort to attract Bridgeport residents and give them an advantage in the recruitment process to diversify the ranks. But Kringen said those best intentions can sometimes be a deterrent because of the possibilities of having to deal with friends, family and acquaintances while on the beat.

“Arresting and/or working in your same community can be complicated,” Kringen said.

Ganim’s transition task force found that out of the last three classes at the city’s academy, 46 white officers were hired, compared to 13 Hispanics and seven blacks.

Asked how best to promote more minority officers, Perez said, “Career development.”

“I just about worked in every division of the Police Department,” Perez said, from narcotics to the animal shelter. “You’ve got to create opportunities (and) bring them up the line.”

Gaudett agreed, adding that Perez will have more of a role to play under the terms of a new police contract.

“A.J. now has the opportunity to pick officers for assignments, when before it was strictly by seniority,” Gaudett said.

That same police contract also phases the deputy chief positions out of the union once the current deputies retire, giving the mayor and chief more decision-making authority over who fills those jobs.

Gaudett added that during his tenure he also collaborated with Sacred Heart University in Fairfield to create a leadership institute aimed at providing advanced training for police supervisors around the region.

Both Gaudett and Chapman agreed that some officers have the drive and skills to move ahead, while others may be less interested in the added responsibilities that come with higher ranks.

“Some people are happy with what they’re doing,” Gaudett said.

Chapman cited Perez as an example of an officer who did what was necessary to rise through the department.

“A.J. paid more attention and worked harder than the others. He absorbed more, plus he had some skills,” Chapman said. “You could smell he was going to advance.”

Sgt. Philip Sharp was among the dozens of police officers present when Perez was sworn in as chief March 3. Sharp, who is African-American, was promoted to sergeant in 2010. He said the opportunities are there.

“It’s just applying yourself,” Sharp said. “Just study, stay positive, be proactive.”

Study is the key word. No matter how positive and proactive officers are, under Civil Service rules to qualify for a promotion they must pass written and oral tests after having held a rank that qualifies them for the next career step for at least a year.

“The current leadership of the department is the result of competitive civil service testing, including deputy chiefs,” said David Dunn, personnel director for Bridgeport’s Civil Service office and commission.

The top scorer is first in line for promotion.

“First (place) goes first, second goes second, third goes third,” Dunn said.

The list of those who pass a given promotional test expires two years from the date of the first promotion. The city has held five promotion exams for supervisory positions in the police department since 2009.

Kringen said municipalities have a responsibility to ensure they are providing fair tests.

“There’s some research that shows they can be culturally biased,” she said.

A year ago Stamford threw out its firefighter exam after an internal investigation determined it favored white males. Most recently Bridgeport has contracted with Illinois-based IOS Recruitment for testing.

The oral tests are overseen by “assessors” - out-of-town police officers of higher ranks - who evaluate applicant answers. Dunn said Bridgeport works hard to diversify its assessors.

“I gave a sergeant’s test and six out of nine assessors were African-American,” Dunn said.

Kringen said municipalities also need to pay attention to the appointed Civil Service Commissions who can be the gatekeepers to policy changes that impact diversity.

“We tend to say the police should just solve the problem,” she said. “I’ve worked with many departments who want to change civil service rules, and the commission says ‘no’.”

Bridgeport’s five-person Civil Service Commission has four members appointed by the mayor and a fifth elected by city employees. Of the four picked by the mayor, one is Hispanic and one is black.

The latter, T. Walter Plummer, is the city’s former director of affirmative action.

The city also has a police commission, appointed by the mayor, that helps oversee the department. Of six sitting members, three are white and three are minority group members.

There are two Hispanic members and one black member, with a second black member recently nominated to fill a vacant seventh seat. The commission does not deal with hiring or promotions, but can get involved in disciplinary matters.

Complicating things further for police departments is the competing pressure not to appear to be giving minority officers unfair advantages. Kringen referred to a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that concluded New Haven unfairly denied promotions to white firefighters.

The city had tossed out promotional exams for captains and lieutenants because none of the high scorers were black. New Haven officials argued they were trying to avoid a lawsuit from minorities.

“Is it fair to blame police departments for not being innovative when the expense can be lawsuits?” Kringen said.

Despite Chapman’s assertions there is no racism within the Bridgeport Police Department, Guardians President Lt. Lonnie Blackwell - one of the department’s better-known black officers - in January 2014 sued his employer in U.S. District Court.

Blackwell, who joined the force in 2000, alleged his leadership of the Guardians subjected him to “harassment, ridicule and unfavorable employment practices.”

Then in 2015, “white power” hate letters were anonymously circulated in the department. They made negative comments about African-American officers and claimed one recipient, police Officer Clive Higgins, did not belong on the force.

Had nothing really changed since the 1970s?

But months later, an Internal Affairs investigation concluded the letters were part of a plot by Blackwell and Higgins to stir up trouble.

Higgins was arrested in December by State Police and charged with second-degree falsely reporting an incident.

Higgins told state police and internal affairs that Blackwell ordered his involvement. Gaudett suspended Blackwell with pay pending a termination hearing.

Higgins was given accelerated rehabilitation by a Superior Court judge in February.

Blackwell’s attorney has claimed his client was wrongly accused and that Higgins did not report to Blackwell, nor did Blackwell have any authority over him.

Meanwhile, the city has asked a judge to toss out Blackwell’s 2014 discrimination lawsuit.

Blackwell’s fate with the department is now in the hands of Perez.

___

Information from: Connecticut Post, http://www.connpost.com

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