A barrier-breaking cop walked away from the job with a five-figure check and two letters of recommendation, after suing her former boss for harassment, intimidation and discrimination.
Patricia Helliger, the first black woman to reach the rank of police captain in New Haven, filed a lawsuit against the City of New Haven and then-Chief Dean Esserman.
Just before the case was set to go to trial — with two-nearly dozen top cops scheduled to take the witness stand — attorneys worked out a deal.
Under the terms of the settlement agreement, which the Independent obtained through the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act, Helliger will get a $52,500 check, along with a letter of recommendation from former Chief Esserman and a letter about her volunteerism from Mayor Toni Harp.
The settlement agreement says that the defendants “in no way admit that they treated [Helliger] unlawfully or unfairly in any way.”
As part of the agreement, Helliger released any future claims, including ones she might not even know about yet, as “she promises never to file or prosecute any lawsuit, complaint, claim for damages or charge” against them. She also agreed not to make any “disparaging statements or comments” about Esserman and the New Haven Police Department.
Helliger and Harp both signed the deal in early December, after it was approved by the city’s Litigation Settlement Committee.
“I am extraordinarily pleased at this resolution, as I believe that it recognizes Captain Helliger’s historical achievements in the New Haven Police Department, for the people of the City of New Haven and for women of color everywhere,” her lawyer, William Palmieri, said in an email. “[Her] merits, achievements and contributions to the City of New Haven are clearly recognized by both her Chief and Mayor Toni Harp in their ringing endorsements of a true New Haven hero.”
In the lawsuit filed in state court in May 2016, Helliger argued that she’d faced “an ongoing pattern [and] continuing campaign of harassment, intimidation and discrimination,” waged by Esserman, “because of her race and gender.”
The complaint, written by her initial lawyer Patricia Cofrancesco, ticked off 17 times Helliger felt that she’d been discriminated against because of her race and gender. They ranged from the anonymous messages she received, like “Mrs. Butterworth” and “Things are so much better when you’re not here,” to the privileges she was denied, like a take-home vehicle and access to overtime logs that other supervisors received.
Cofrancesco said she planned to call 21 witnesses to prove her case, including Chief Anthony Campbell, Assistant Chief Luiz Casanova and School Security Director Thaddeus Reddish.
A week out from trial, the city’s lawyers filed an emergency motion asking for the trial to be delayed, as they tried to mediate the case in front of a judge.
Last month, on Dec. 19, 2018, Superior Court Judge Robert Young dismissed the lawsuit administratively after attorneys failed to file paperwork for a withdrawal.
The city’s spokesperson, Laurence Grotheer, said in an email, “It is the City’s position the settlement agreement in this matter is self-explanatory.”
Before starting a career in law enforcement, the Brooklyn-raised, Dutch-speaking Helliger traveled the world as a flight attendant for Pan-American World Airways. After the airline was bought out, she started selling insurance, and during one pitch to the Bridgeport Police Department, some officers insisted that she take the civil-service test.
Helliger eventually took the oath to protect and serve in New Haven, where she was intrigued by the concepts of community policing that then-Chief Nick Pastore was implementing. She was soon working her way up the ranks.
For years, Helliger also organized community outreach programs. She put together toy, food and coat drives for needy families, and she also kept up the Mae Ola Reddick Foundation in Dixwell. She coordinated visits to city schools by cops from foreign countries, as a way to familiarize students with the diversity on the force. And most recently, she paired senior citizens with neighbors who could check in on them.
Confrontation At Wal-Mart
Helliger also faced scrutiny for her heated confrontations with citizens and colleagues.
In October 2014, Helliger was the subject of an internal investigation, which found that she had violated department policies by displaying conduct unbecoming of a sworn officer and by interfering with a citizen’s right to videotape her.
In a tiff over a parking space in a Wal-Mart lot, Helliger knocked a cell phone out of another shopper’s hand as he filmed her. A passenger then got out of the car and struck her, before they both ended up shoving each other. The police union and several city alders supported Helliger, arguing she was the victim, not the perpetrator.
In the lawsuit against Esserman, Helliger used the altercation as another example of how she felt unfairly treated. “The response from the Department amounted to an IA investigation, four hours detainment and no inquiry as to whether [she] was injured as a result of the assault perpetrated upon her,” Cofrancesco wrote in the complaint filed in court.
In a subsequent meeting, Helliger told Esserman that the way internal investigators showed up on scene had made her concerned for her physical safety, saying she hoped “officers did not respond to the public asking for help like they did for her,” Cofrancesco wrote. Esserman told Helliger that she could feel free to call him any time she didn’t feel safe; Helliger said she’d rather call her direct supervisor, then-Assistant Chief Anthony Campbell, and forward Esserman a memo.
Two months later, the Internal Affairs investigation concluded that Helliger had been in the wrong and lied under oath. But Esserman (who faced his own disciplinary matter at the time) decided against punishing her.
Helliger’s file (read about it here) contained other controversial incidents as well: An attorney for a Latino immigrant complained that Helliger refused to certify routine paperwork needed to apply for a visa for an abused child, while insulting the mother’s command of English and complaining about immigrants allegedly taking advantage of a visa program. It turned out other immigrant families — whom Helliger allegedly suggested were liars — were also stalled in obtaining the paperwork. Instead of disciplining Helliger, police brass transferred the duties to another official.
She received a one-day suspension for failing to respond one evening in 2012 to a scene where a cop shot a dog that was attacking a police canine. Helliger was the B squad shift commander. An internal investigation found that Helliger violated a general order requiring the supervisor on duty to respond to scenes where cops discharged weapons. Helliger wrote in a memo to Chief Esserman that she “should have responded to the scene ... I see that this incident certainly appears that I or the other supervisors are uncaring toward the welfare of the troops but for this supervisor and shift commander that is far from the truth.”
Delay To Promotion
A year later, in November 2015, after notching high scores on a promotional exam (that had been tainted by accusations of favoritism), the police commission was ready to elevate Helliger to a higher rank — one that her predecessor, Petisia Adger, had skipped over on her way to becoming the department’s first black female assistant chief.
But right before the vote, Esserman called off the meeting, saying officials hadn’t posted an agenda ahead of time. According to numerous people familiar with the situation, the postponement stemmed from a shouting match the week prior over who has authority to handle Freedom of Information Act requests: Helliger, who was running the records division, or then-Lt. Rachael Cain, who was running Internal Affairs.
The commissioners eventually got around to the vote, and Helliger celebrated her historic promotion in February 2016 with a ceremony at City Hall.
“With a progressive department like we are, I just think it’s a shame that it took this long really,” Helliger said at the time. “It’s very disheartening for me to realize I’m the first black female captain, and despite what people might think, it was not by design.”
Helliger retired from the force this summer. When she sent in her notice in June, the union contract was headed into arbitration, with both sides deadlocked on retirees’ monthly heath insurance premiums.
“As one might imagine, Captain Helliger’s road was not always an easy one for her to travel, as her suit and this resolution recognize,” Palmieri said. “As a pioneer Captain Helliger fought and overcame many obstacles, and has left the New Haven Police Department a better place than when she arrived.”