Citing bias, cops sue city

Ten black New Haven police officers will appear in the Connecticut Superior Court Monday to argue they were unlawfully passed over for promotion based solely on the color of their skin.

The plaintiffs — known as the “New Haven 10” — claim that the New Haven Civil Service Board, or CSB, improperly invalidated the results of a 2009 examination for promotion to the rank of sergeant after no Latino officers passed the exam. According to the plaintiffs’ attorney John Williams, the board’s decision was a racially motivated effort to limit the number of African-Americans promoted. The plaintiffs filed suit in Superior Court in late 2011 seeking the reinstatement of the exam results and monetary judgment greater than $15,000, and they will appear in court on Monday to argue for an injunction against promotions based on a newly administered 2011 test.

“The monetary damages are potentially a huge factor, but what I’m more interested in is getting these guys promoted,” Williams said.

The case is the second iteration of the charge of racially motivated employment discrimination against the city in recent memory. In 2004, 20 New Haven firefighters — “the New Haven 20” — sued the city after the CSB invalidated the results of a 2003 test on which no African-Americans scored high enough for promotion. The case, titled Ricci v. DeStefano, was eventually argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the firefighters, 19 of whom were white, requiring the city to pay $2 million to the plaintiffs and $3 million to their attorney, Karen Lee Torre. In its decision, the court ruled that the city engaged in disparate treatment, violating Section VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The examination at the heart of the current case, which was administered in April 2009, consisted of a written and oral portion. Of the 33 officers with passing scores, none were Hispanic. When the CSB met in July 2009 to approve the list of officers eligible for promotions, board members expressed discomfort “with the fact that no Hispanics passed the exam,” according to minutes from the meeting. As a result, the board decided it would allow the list of eligible officers to expire after one year rather than the usual two. Over the course of the year, 12 officers were promoted — fewer than would have been promoted were the list valid for the entire two years.

Williams cited the current case’s similarity to Ricci v. DeStefano, explaining that a precedent already exists for the plaintiffs’ argument.

“It’s a winning case because it’s Ricci redux,” Williams said. “We’ve been down this road before.”

New Haven Corporation counsel Victor Bolden, who disagreed, saying in a press release that “the motion lacks merit.” Bolden declined to comment further.

Legal experts interviewed emphasized the difficulties faced by cities in adhering to fair employment practices while accounting for racial diversity.

New Haven attorney Norm Pattis, who is uninvolved in the case, suggested that cities often struggle in weighing race in employment decisions, saying that they are “under a mandate both to consider and not to consider race.”

“There’s a lot of good policy reasons why employers might wish to have a racially diverse workforce,” said New York University law professor Cynthia Estlund, who focuses on employment and labor law. “Police is a classic example. It’s important for credibility and legitimacy that the police force somehow reflects the diversity of the population.”

Estlund noted, however, that the conscious weighing of race in employment decisions remains a hotly contested legal question that often divides the Supreme Court.

For the city to prove that it was justified in allowing the promotion list to expire, Estlund said, it will have to show that its own test not only disparately affected Hispanics but that the disparate impact was highly job-related, unlike in Ricci.

But even with the case before the Superior Court, life at the New Haven Police Department has continued largely as usual.

New Haven Police Department spokesman David Hartman emphasized that, from what he knew, the city did not think the case would grow to the proportions of Ricci v. DeStefano.

“From what our union president has told us already, this is at the very beginning stages of something that they don’t expect to blow up into something huge,” Hartman said, emphasizing that the police department was not involved in the handling of the case.

In addition to Bolden, the city has also hired Cheshire attorney Nicole Chomiak for its defense. Chomiak could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The Ricci v. DeStefano decision was split 5–4 at the U.S. Supreme Court, with Justice Anthony Kennedy writing the opinion of the court and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg writing the dissent.

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