Settlement talks underway between NL and fired officer

New London - Behind-the-scenes negotiations, with an eye towards a settlement, are in the works between the city and Thomas Northup, a former New London police officer fired for shooting and wounding the unarmed driver of a stolen ice truck.

The most recent court filing in the city's pending appeal of Northup's rehiring shows the two sides are embroiled in ongoing talks. What outcome those talks might yield is something both sides have declined to discuss.

Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio fired Northup on March 22, 2012, for "use of excessive and unreasonable force," following an internal investigation into the Aug. 24, 2011, shooting.

The police union, however, brought the case to the state Board of Mediation and Arbitration. The board ruled in October that the city did not have just cause to terminate Northup, telling the city to hire him back.

The city appealed the board's decision and in the pending lawsuit asks a judge to dismiss the board's decision. There has been little movement in the case thus far, with city attorney Brian Estep twice asking for time extensions to submit legal briefs.

"The parties are currently in negotiations with attempts in settling this matter and agree to this extension of time to save unnecessary legal costs," Estep wrote in his latest motion, filed on Feb. 24 in New London Superior Court.

On Tuesday, Estep confirmed the two sides were working on a resolution but declined to comment further. Similarly, Northup's attorney, Richard Gudis, declined to comment on the case but said he had not objected to the motion for an extension of time.

The city council appears to be split on whether or not to back the mayor's decision to appeal the labor board's decision. The council has continually refused to act on a resolution presented in January by city council member Michael Passero to withdraw the appeal. The most recent call to put the resolution to a vote, following an executive session, failed by a 4 to 3 vote.

Council President Wade Hyslop, who said the city has a right to appeal the decision, said the votes indicate four councilors support the mayor's decision.

Hyslop joined councilors Efrain Dominguez, Anthony Nolan and Erica Richardson to vote against putting the resolution to a vote. Councilors Michael Passero, Michael Tranchida and Martin Olsen voted to put the resolution to a vote.

Passero disagrees with Hyslop's assessment of councilors' support for the appeal, saying "we don't know because the motion's been tabled."

"If all four supported the mayor's decision, then why don't they vote to take it off the table?" he said.

Passero has told the council they are violating their obligations and contractual agreement by challenging the arbitrator's decision and prolonging the process.

"My position is we have a contractual agreement with the police union to resolve these disputes in arbitration. The final step when a dispute is not able to be resolved is to let an arbitrator resolve it. It's final and binding in this police contract. We're welching on our contractual agreement," Passero said. "I'm not going to support that. In my opinion, this is a frivolous appeal."

Northup shot Curtis Cunningham four times on Aug. 24, 2011, following a chase through the city that led to a crash. Cunningham was standing in the overturned truck when Northup yelled for him to "drop the weapon," before Northup fired five shots. Northup told investigators he believed Cunningham had a gun and Cunningham had refused to remove his hands from his under his shirt.

Cunningham later tested positive for PCP, according to police reports. Cunningham has filed a federal lawsuit in the case.

Northup was cleared of wrongdoing by an investigation by the state's attorney's office but was fired by the city for what Finizio said was violation of department policy.

The Board of Mediation and Arbitration, in their ruling, said the city did not present credible evidence that Northup's use of force was excessive or unlawful or that the city had any basis to dispute Northup's belief that Cunningham "presented an imminent harm."

In their appeal, the city claims "arbitrators were guilty of misconduct by refusing to hear evidence pertinent and material to the controversy or by other actions by which the rights of the City of New London have been prejudiced."

Northup could not be reached for comment.

g.smith@theday.com

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