Civil rights in New Haven questioned

As a civil rights court case gears up for another round of hearings, local leaders are calling on the city to take stronger action to ensure its municipalities fairly represent the racial demographics of the people they serve.

The plaintiffs are a group of 10 African-American New Haven Police Department officers who allege that they were prevented from being promoted to the rank of sergeant because of their race, despite passing the department’s exam in 2009. On Feb. 21, Judge Matthew Frechette from the Connecticut State Superior Court denied the city’s motion to drop the case; and so, what has come to be known as the New Haven 10 case will be brought to trial starting April 25.

Project Longevity’s William Mathis, along with many African-American leaders from around the Elm City, said he believes the case is part of a larger struggle to promote more minority leaders to the to the highest ranks of public office.

“Critical to the advancement of those felt left behind [or] marginalized is the opportunity to see people who look like them and originate from their community as positive role models and in significant leadership positions,” Mathis said.

The Coalition for Anti-Violence Stakeholders, a group that attempts to curb violence and support racial diversity,of which Mathis is a part, has also pushed for fairer representation of minorities within in the city’s Board of Education, police and fire departments, according to its founding document

“By taking responsibility for our advancement and liberation and accepting accountability for it, whether those on the peripheral or outside community assist or not, we will do it and take the lead for it,” Mathis added.

Local attorney John Williams, who is representing the defendants, said that the timing of the New Haven 10 case is particularly interesting, as it comes on the heels of Ricci v. DeStefano, another civil rights case in New Haven that was decided by the United States Supreme Court in June 2009.

Ricci v. DeStefano was brought to court after a similar promotional exam within the New Haven Fire Department on which 17 Caucasian firefighters and one Hispanic firefighter received the highest marks, while no African-American firefighters did. Though the city claims to not have been engaging in discriminatory employment practices, the  United States Supreme Court ruled that New Haven acted outside the law, forcing it to pay millions of dollars in legal fees and reparations, Williams said.

“Fear of litigation alone cannot justify the city’s reliance on race to the detriment of individuals who passed the examinations and qualified for promotions,” the Supreme Court’s official ruling reads.

Williams added that, before the New Haven 10 case was launched, the city’s Civil Service Board voted to approve the results of the NHPD’s exam for only one year instead of the usual two, in light of the Ricci v. DeStefano ruling and the fact that no Hispanic officers had garnered high marks.

This means the results of the examination had expired before Williams’ clients could be promoted, leading them to seek litigation for unfair employment practices.

“We feel that this is a pretty close carbon copy of the Ricci case,” Williams said. “We filed a complaint with the State Civil Rights Commission, hoping that the city of New Haven would come to it and settle the case. In fact, the city refused to negotiate and took the position that they were standing along with what they did.”

City Hall spokesman Laurence Grotheer and attorney Nicole Chomiak, who is representing the city, declined to comment so as not to interfere with the proceedings of pending litigation.

Mayor Toni Harp has the ability to agree to a settlement and end the case immediately, something that Williams said he hopes will happen, but cannot predict. He concluded that there is little reason to believe that New Haven has worse racial discrimination than any other city, and that his clients have continued their duties as public safety officers as the case continues.

“I think it is always a desirable thing to achieve the goal without breaking the law to have your public institutions reflect the community,” he said. “It makes them more sensitive to the community and it inspires such trust that the people are being heard.”

14 firefighters were promoted as a result of the Ricci decision.

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