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New London officer argues investigation into racial discrimination falls short

New London — He hasn't yet seen the results, but New London police Sgt. Cornelius "Neil" Rodgers says he has little confidence that an independent investigation into his claims of racial bias at the department will amount to much.

The 17-year veteran said he was never interviewed as part of the investigation and his attorney questions the term "independent" when applied to the attorney performing it. City officials claim Rodgers declined the offer to be interviewed.

The city has promised a thorough review of the claims of systemic racism at the department. The city's attorney said results of the investigation are expected sometime within the next month.

The investigation stems from a complaint Rodgers filed last year with the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, in which he claims discrimination and retaliation. Rodgers, who is Black, says he is treated differently than his white counterparts at the department and has been the target of biased investigations. He also has threatened a lawsuit.

The complaint was filed while an internal investigation was underway and Rodgers' termination seemingly imminent as punishment for punching a handcuffed prisoner in the booking area of the Waterford Police Department last year. The alleged punches to the face and stomach of the man came during a struggle to retrieve a cellphone from the suspect's hand. Rodgers claims a pocketknife seized from the suspect was within the man's reach and it was unclear whether he had retrieved it.

It was the latest in a series of disciplinary actions against Rodgers for a range of issues through his years at the department.

He was eventually suspended for 20 days after it was determined his use of force in the April 9, 2019, incident was unjustified. He credits the support from the New London NAACP and state Rep. Anthony Nolan, who is also a New London police officer, with helping to avoid a harsher punishment. He has filed a grievance over his punishment.

In light of the complaint, the city hired an outside lawyer, labor attorney Paula Anthony, to investigate the discrimination claims.

Both Rodgers and his attorney, Jacques Parenteau, remain skeptical.

Parenteau argues the investigation was neither timely nor impartial and Rodgers' suspension was not warranted.

"There is clear evidence that the NLPD's finding of excessive force in that case deviated from NLPD custom and procedures," he said in an email. "The NLPD punished Sgt. Rodgers when white police officers have been granted a free pass both before and after his suspension for doing worse."

Parenteau said Anthony and her firm, Berchem Moses, advertise themselves as representing municipalities and investigating "employee misconduct." He also said his attempts to obtain a copy of the agreement with the investigator and any information provided to her were rebuked, with the city maintaining it is privileged information.

"What did the city of New London want to hide?" Parenteau said.

Rodgers claims the city tried to get him to talk to the investigator while he was on duty, without his attorney. He refused.

"We have been excluded from this so-called investigation, that much is clear, and I have not seen a report from this investigator 10 months later," Parenteau said. "I will not be surprised that, when the city gets around to issuing a report, it will exonerate the NLPD, especially since such a result is in the interest of the city of New London, given that we are now in litigation over the same claims."

New London's Chief Administrative Officer Steve Fields, in an emailed response to questions from The Day, said the city does not comment on pending or threatened litigation, nor pending investigations.

"However, regarding the issue of Sergeant Rodgers being interviewed by the Investigator, in a June 16, 2020 letter sent to the City, Sergeant Rodgers' attorney expressly refused to allow his client to be interviewed. His attorney would only consider permitting his client to answer written interrogatories submitted to them if the Investigator wished to do so instead of an interview."

Investigations and suspensions

Rodgers, in a recent interview, admitted his record at the department could be damaging to his case but said his lengthy history of discipline is also evidence he has been treated differently.

A Freedom of Information Act request for Rodgers' record of discipline turned up more than two dozen investigations, multiple suspensions and other punishments for alleged on- and off-duty behavior that dates back to his time at the police academy in 2003, when he was suspended for two days for "conduct unbecoming of an officer" because of an altercation with someone at the academy.

The actions against him include a 20-day suspension and arrest in a July 27, 2006, incident at the Bank Street Roadhouse Cafe for allegedly punching a bouncer in the face, causing a public disturbance and using violent threatening and offensive language against a woman. Rodgers claims he only pushed the bouncer after he was pushed.

Rodgers' file contains investigations into everything from excessive use of force and workplace violence to tardiness and misuse of sick time. He's been disciplined by three police chiefs — Bruce Rinehart, Margaret Ackley and current Chief Peter Reichard.

The disciplinary history includes a 20-day suspension for an incident on April 12, 2008, for striking a handcuffed suspect in the stomach four times. Rodgers, a member of an anti-violence team at the time, said he and fellow officers were kicked by the suspect, who was trying to swallow a baggie of suspected crack cocaine. Rodgers claims two white officers involved were not disciplined.

On May 25, 2008, Rodgers was allegedly involved in an altercation with other off-duty officers at the Bulkeley House on Bank Street and later suspended for 20 days. He said the three white officers involved were not disciplined.

Ackley, the former chief, in an Oct, 22, 2009, letter to Rodgers, said the suspension was not only for the bar incident but a result of Rodgers' overall disciplinary record, which by that time had included "13 supervisor's complaints, violations varying in nature from lateness for duty and failure to safeguard city property to conduct unbecoming an officer and observance of law."

"You have been suspended without pay on at least three previous occasions, totaling more than thirty days" and faced disciplinary issues on at least seven different occasions, Ackley wrote.

Rodgers was suspended and had 40 hours of holiday pay taken away for a May 1, 2010, incident in which he engaged in the pursuit of a motorized scooter with a civilian riding along in his cruiser. Reports show he allegedly forced the scooter and two occupants into the bushes. Rodgers had observed an alleged drug transaction prior to the chase.

He was suspended again for five days in 2010 for improperly taking funeral leave.

The culmination of his disciplinary actions against him, his pending grievances and the possibility he could be fired led to what was deemed a "last chance agreement" he signed in 2010.

Rodgers, by signing the document, agreed not to violate department policies. Records show, however, investigations continued into things including a workplace violence complaint in 2017 after a confrontation with a Norwich police officer who was part of an FBI task force working in the city. That incident led to a 10-day suspension and loss of 10 days of holiday pay.

'Typecast as the angry Black man'

Confronted with his extensive history at the department, Rodgers said that when details of many the incidents are taken into account, his disciplinary history backs his contention that "something's wrong" at the department.

"You look at my record and you go, 'Wow, this guy is messed up.' You can paint me with a broad brush and say, 'This guy's a bad apple. How did he keep his job?'" Rodgers said. "It's easy to paint a picture of an angry Black man. If a white guy says something to you, you say it's passionate. I can't do the same things as a white person."

Rodgers explained his side of some of the incidents. At the police academy, he said he was the only Black man in his class and had trouble with one "racist" individual that constantly referred to him as "boy."

"I told him, 'If you keep referring to me as boy, we're going to have some problems and you're not going to like it,'" Rodgers recalls.

While at the academy he said he was once told, "your kind weren't meant to be cops." Having grown up in New London and never encountering racism of this sort, Rodgers said he was shocked.

He also disputes the allegations in several of the cases. In the Bulkeley House incident, he said several white officers were never disciplined for their roles in what he said was "helping the bouncer out."

He said in the workplace violence incident in which he confronted a Norwich police officer, he was "defending the rights of a Black man."

Rodgers said he remains a target at the department because "I don't get along with the good ol' boy network."

"There are people that think community policing is like being Dirty Harry. They don't want to change," he said. "That is the old way of thinking. Unfortunately, I've been typecast as the angry Black man and everything I do has to be investigated."

He said recent investigations include an allegation by the union president that he released confidential material on a use-of-force investigation to his attorney. He said he also has been investigated for throwing a set of keys to another officer, the result of an allegation of workplace violence. That investigation, he said, included weighing the keys and measuring the distance of the throw.

"Sgt. Rodgers' telling description of the systemic racism going back over a decade that is represented by what is not stated in the New London Police Department's disciplinary file concerning Sgt. Rodgers needs to be understood as stark evidence of the NLPD's problem with race: in each case of discipline set forth in that file a Black man received harsher treatment than a white police officer that engaged in the same or similar conduct," Parenteau said.

'This guy has problems with everyone'

Rodgers said he remains at odds with at least one supervisor at the department and said that, in his latest grievance related to his 20-day suspension, his union representative, John Miller, was convicted in a federal criminal case involving East Haven police officers accused of civil rights violations.

"If that ain't putting red flags up, I don't know what is," Rodgers said.

Council 4 AFSCME has filed for grievance arbitration in the matter. No hearing date has been set. Miller will represent Rodgers in the arbitration and Rodgers is aware of that, said Larry Dorman, spokesman for the union, which represents 30,000 state and municipal workers, including the New London Police Department.

Police union President Todd Lynch said Rodgers has had the opportunity to choose different representation. Lynch also said that in addition to representing Rodgers in the Waterford incident, the union had represented the members accused by Rodgers of performing a flawed internal investigation. These claims were found to be unsubstantiated, he said.

Lynch took issue with Rodgers' accusations against the department and said he has failed to receive support from his colleagues when running on several occasions for union positions.

"It appears Mr. Rodgers has a lot of problems with people both in the department and outside of the department," Lynch said. "Maybe it's his problem and not someone else's. This guy has problems with everyone. Is it him or everyone else?"

"He is stereotyping everyone at the department as if they are bad cops," Lynch said. "Yet it is him that's answering to these allegations. Then he wants to throw negativity towards the rest of us. He's making us all look bad in defending his use of force. If this was a white guy with a pattern like this, would it be different?"

Rodgers said he understands his work at the department is under constant scrutiny but supervises a solid group on his shift and loves the city where he works. He said his accusations should not cast a shadow on the officers doing good work day in and day out.

"I get along with 98% of the people at that police department. It's just a handful of people. Their way of thinking is antiquated and disturbing and they should not be in police work," he said.

An internal investigation was conducted at the department into alleged June 6, 2020, vandalism to his private vehicle earlier this year. Rodgers suspects someone put pepper spray into the air ducts of the vehicle. The Day has a pending request for the outcome of that investigation.

"Sgt. Rodgers and the people of the city of New London deserve better. They deserve a city government and a police department that treats employees equally and that punishes discrimination instead of practicing it," Parenteau said. "The people and their representatives, elected and otherwise, need to demand change because racism in the NLPD, as reflected by the treatment of Sgt. Rodgers, harms the entire community, not just employees like him."

g.smith@theday.com

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