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New London police sergeant suspects fellow officers vandalized his car

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New London — City police are investigating a complaint by Sgt. Cornelius Rodgers that somebody put pepper spray in the air ducts of his personal car Saturday, just hours after details of Rodgers' complaint of institutional racism within the police department was published on The Day's website.

Rodgers wrote in a "suspicious incident" report Sunday that he believes someone tampered with his car, which has no markings or stickers indicating it belongs to a police officer, and that other officers were aware he had parked behind the Stanton building at 111 Union St. during his 12-hour shift.

He said that, after he turned on the car and switched on the air conditioner, his eyes began to water and he started coughing uncontrollably and gagging. He said he pulled over near 150 Broad St., exited the car and began dry-heaving. He called a sergeant and lieutenant, but by the time Sgt. Joshua Bergeson arrived approximately five minutes later, Bergeson could not smell what had caused the "violent reaction."

"I find it suspicious that a letter from my attorney was sent to the chief, and a newspaper article came out that day, and now my vehicle got (pepper) sprayed," Rodgers wrote in an email to Lt. Matthew Galante. "The purpose of this email is to notify you of this incident and make you aware of possible retaliation and/or intimidation."

Police Capt. Brian M. Wright said the department is conducting a criminal investigation.

"I contacted the state's attorney's office to see if it was a matter best investigated by an outside agency," Wright said by phone. "They said it would be best handled within our agency. Obviously the department does not condone illegal activity by personnel or civilians. If we could determine a responsible party, we will do everything we can to ensure there's an arrest."

On Monday, Rodgers' attorney, Jacques J. Parenteau, wrote to Mayor Michael Passero for the second time in a week to ask how the city is going to effectively deal with race relations in the community if it is unable to police itself on the issue of race.

Rodgers, who is black, claims he was investigated more intensively and punished more harshly than white co-workers, including police union President Todd Lynch, after Rodgers punched a handcuffed black man at the Waterford Police Department. Rodgers, who was suspended for 20 days following the incident, said he punched the man to defend himself and another officer, because he thought the man had a knife.

Lynch, the union president, recently was cleared in a use-of-force incident in which he struck a prisoner twice in the face during a struggle in the holding area at police headquarters.

"I wasn't fully aware of the situation involving Sgt. Rodgers' vehicle," Lynch said by phone Tuesday. "But if somebody, law enforcement or not, tampered with his vehicle, they should be arrested and prosecuted. As the union president, I don't find it helpful to our membership to place all of our members under rumor and innuendo without any evidence."

Lynch said he filed a grievance of the discipline complaint on Rodgers' behalf, connected him with an attorney to represent him in the grievance and assigned two union executive board members to handle Rodgers' case.  

As of Tuesday, attorney Parenteau said he had not heard back from the city, which has hired an outside investigator to investigate Rodgers' claims that he has been treated with bias by white superiors. The New London branch of the NAACP also is following the case.

"What we're going to have to look at is taking it to the Department of Justice or the state attorney general's office, because clearly the New London police are unable to protect their own employees from retaliation for being whistleblowers," Parenteau said by phone.

The incident occurred following Saturday's protest, during which thousands of people marched through city streets calling for an end to racism and police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The vast majority of protesters were peaceful, but during the event, someone spray-painted anti-police messages on a city police cruiser and the Truman Street substation and spray-painted a statue of Christopher Columbus.

Mayor Passero said by phone Tuesday afternoon that he would not comment on the letters from Rodgers' attorney. Instead, he spoke of the city's efforts to ensure police are accountable.

Passero said he is working with John F. McKnight Jr., dean of institutional equity and inclusion at Connecticut College, to form a Public Safety Policy Review committee. He listed among the invited participants NAACP officials, members of the black, Latino and Jewish communities as well as clergy members, youth and city councilors.

"What I want to do is put together a committee of respected members of the community and have them completely review all of our police department's polices, practices and training and give us their opinion on where we are, where we should go and where we need to be," Passero said. 

As protesters around the country continued to demand police accountability, Connecticut's U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy announced Tuesday that they are co-sponsoring the proposed Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which was introduced by Sens. Kamala D. Harris, D-Calif., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., and U.S. Reps. Karen Bass, D-Calif., and Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.

In part, the proposed law would ban chokeholds and eliminate the use of no-knock warrants, in which police enter a home without prior notice, at the federal level, limit the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local law enforcement, mandate the use of dashboard and body cameras for federal offices and require local law enforcement to use existing federal funds for body cameras. The law also would establish a National Police Misconduct Registry to prevent problematic officers who are fired from moving to another jurisdiction.

The proposal would ease the federal law to make it easier to identify and prosecute misconduct and reform qualified immunity so that individuals are not barred from recovering damages when police violate their constitutional rights.

k.florin@theday.com

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