Black police officers fighting the city in court agreed Wednesday to lift a legal roadblock, freeing the city to speed ahead with sergeant promotions.
The agreement took place in state Superior Court on Church Street, where Officer Bruce Bonner (pictured above) and nine other African-American cops have been pursuing a discrimination lawsuit against the city. The so-called New Haven 10 passed a sergeants exam in April 2009 and never got promoted. They claim the city discriminated against them when the Civil Service Commission certified the eligibility list for only one year instead of two because no Latinos passed the exam.
Now the city is looking to name another round of sergeants from a new promotional exam. Fearing they may lose the chance to advance in rank, the plaintiffs called on a state judge to stop the city from promoting any more sergeants until they settle their case. Their lawyer, Attorney John R. Williams, got a judge to schedule an emergency meeting Wednesday to discuss a motion to stop the promotions. He subpoenaed eight city officials, who trudged up to the fourth floor of the courthouse for a 9:15 a.m. hearing.
As the cops and city officials waited in a hallway, Williams conferred with the city’s legal defense team in a closed-door meeting before Judge Matthew Frechette. They emerged a half-hour later with an announcement.
“We’ve reached an agreement. All subpoenas are off,” said Victor Bolden, City Hall’s top attorney.
According to the deal, Williams (pictured) agreed to stop trying to block the city’s new promotions through his motion for injunction in court. He agreed to do that because he conceded that his clients do indeed have adequate remedy under the law to seek promotions through their lawsuit. The Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act, on which the lawsuit is based, enables cops to win only monetary damages, but also promotions, Bolden said. So if the cops win their lawsuit, and a judge so orders it, the city would have to promote the plaintiffs as sergeants.
“Either the jobs have to be created, or people have to get bumped,” Williams explained to his clients. If they win, the plaintiffs would get retroactive pay and benefits. Williams announced he was satisfied with the city’s assurances and would withdraw his motion for an injunction. Bolden and Williams laid out the terms of their agreement in a brief hearing before a second judge, William L. Hadden, Jr.
The decision clears the way for the city to approve the latest eligibility list from a new sergeants exam. Approval could come as soon as Tuesday, when the Civil Service Commission next meets. Promotions would then follow from that list. The city has 18 vacancies out of 54 budgeted sergeant positions. Williams is also representing eight other cops in a federal lawsuit about the same exam.
Most of his 18 clients (combined from both cases) took the latest promotional exam. Some of them may score upcoming promotions off the forthcoming eligibility list, but Williams said that wouldn’t make the lawsuit moot. If his clients had been promoted to sergeant a couple of years ago, they could be in position to take an upcoming lieutenants exam. Their careers—and future earning potential—have been set back, he argued.
“We should be studying for the lieutenants test,” not the sergeants test, Bonner said after the hearing. Bolden maintains the city committed no acts of discrimination.
In a stroke of harmonious cooperation seldom seen when his predecessors battled the Ricci v. DeStefano reverse discrimination case, both Bolden (pictured) and Williams declared themselves satisfied with Wednesday’s agreement.
The city will get to fill some of the long-running vacancies in the police department’s upper ranks. And Bonner and his colleagues can rest assured they won’t lose their window of opportunity to win spots as sergeants through court.
“We’re satisfied,” Bonner said as he walked out of court. He said bumping other cops out of their jobs—one possible outcome of Wednesday’s proceedings—“isn’t something we want to do, but the process is what it is.”
Bonner was joined in court by several other plaintiffs as well as James Rawlings, president of the Greater New Haven NAACP.
The case is not likely to be resolved for at least another year. A trial is scheduled for next fall, with jury selection set to begin Oct. 22, 2013.