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Black New London police officer files discrimination lawsuit

New London — New London police Sgt. Cornelius Rodgers, a veteran Black officer with pending complaints of racial discrimination that motivated the city to conduct an independent investigation, has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city and the police department.

Rodgers alleges a pattern of systemic racial discrimination spanning his 17-year career at the department, where he claims he is unfairly targeted for discipline, the subject of biased investigations by white supervisors and retaliated against when he has complained about it. It has resulted in a hostile work environment, he claims.

Rodgers has pending complaints with the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, one of which he said provoked retaliation in the form of pepper spray being applied to the air ducts of his personal vehicle while parked outside the police department. An internal investigation into that complaint was inconclusive.

There was more retaliation, Rodgers alleges, when the department dropped his score on a promotional test due to his suspension, “based on a rule that had never before been invoked in the City of New London’s promotion process.” The city dropped his score from second to fourth and took him out of the running for a promotion to lieutenant.

The lawsuit was filed on Jan. 26 in U.S. District Court. Chief Judge Stefan R. Underhill is overseeing the case.

“Sgt. Rodgers had no alternative but to proceed with a lawsuit in federal court because not only has the city shown absolutely no interest in settling his claims, but has continued to retaliate against him,” said Jacques Parenteau, who represents Rodgers in the suit.

Rodgers, in the suit, is asking not only for an award of damages and attorneys' fees but a purge of his disciplinary file and promotion to lieutenant. He has been the subject of more than two dozen investigations, multiple suspensions and other punishments for on- and off-duty incidents that date back to his time at the police academy, a review by The Day shows.

Rodgers also wants the department to institute racial sensitivity training and compliance with the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

“Money is not enough for Sgt. Rodgers,” Parenteau said. “We need to change the culture of the police department.”

Rodgers began work with the department in 2003 and was promoted to sergeant in 2016. Throughout his career, he claims in the suit, he was “subjected to disparate treatment and biased investigations by Plaintiff’s white supervisors due to his race.”

Some of the examples Rodgers cites include a 20-day suspension in 2007 for using “bad tactics” for striking a handcuffed prisoner after he was kicked in the groin, a bar fight that led to discipline for him but not the white officers involved and his signing of a 2010 last-chance agreement with no expiration date. He claims a white officer during that time signed a similar agreement with a three-year expiration.

The last-chance agreement came up during a disciplinary hearing for the 2019 incident when Rodgers punched a handcuffed prisoner. An internal investigation found his use of force unjustified, since the prisoner did not pose an immediate threat. Rodgers had argued the prisoner was within reach of a knife. He credited the NAACP and state Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, with intervening on his behalf to stave off his possible firing.

Rodgers also cites several instances where white officers used excessive force but were disciplined less harshly or not reprimanded at all.

“There really was no option for me,” Rodgers said in a statement about filing the lawsuit. “I simply could not continue to be beaten down as a Black man working for the NLPD, being held to a different standard than white officers. I am seeking what every Black person in America is seeking today: equality.”

In April, following Rodgers' complaints about discrimination, the city hired an outside attorney to conduct an investigation and produce a report for the city. Attorney Paula Anthony, senior counsel in the Labor and Employment practice group with the firm Berchem Moses, conducted the investigation. City officials promised a thorough and unbiased review of Rodgers’ claims.

New London City Attorney Jeffrey Londregan said Tuesday that Anthony has concluded all of her interviews and fact-finding tasks and the hope was to have a completed report within the next several weeks.

g.smith@theday.com

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