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Interim leader at New London police department settles while controversy swirls

New London — A decade ago, an independent investigator assigned to review the Hartford Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division concluded the department was in the midst of an internal power struggle and “there is an overwhelming atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust."

There was a "bunker mentality" among different groups in the department, the reports went on to say.

Neville Brooks, in an interview with The Day this past week, does not discount parallels between New London and what was happening in Hartford at that time, when he was a lieutenant and commanded the department's Internal Affairs Division.

Brooks was hired by the city this month to act as interim superintendent of the New London Police Department, leading the department while Chief Brian Wright awaits results of an investigation into a complaint against him. The nature of the complaint has not been made public.

Wright, sworn in this past July as the city’s first Black chief, was placed on administrative leave Oct. 6 by Mayor Michael Passero, who has expressed confidence in Wright’s return to duty.

The way he sees it, Brooks is in New London to provide stability, keep things moving forward and keep morale up at a department plagued by some controversies over the past year.

“Morale’s got to be impacted in any organization during something like this,” he said.

Brooks is quick to highlight the good he’s seen in his first week in New London. During a call from the Department of Children and Families to check on a family, for example, Brooks said officers arrived and found there was no food in the house. One officer bought dinner and the other took money out of their pocket to help out, he said.

He said his first impression is overwhelmingly positive. “They’ve got a great police department here from what I’ve seen so far. They’re engaged with the community. I’ve encouraged them to keep that up and not hang their heads.”

The department has faced some scrutiny because of recent lawsuits, complaints and the abrupt retirement of former Chief Peter Reichard. Wright was appointed on an interim bases after Reichard left the department at the end of his contract. It turns out an officer at the department secretly recorded a conversation with Reichard in which he can be heard making disparaging remarks about the city and talking about how minority candidates had been chosen for promotion during his career.

The backdrop of that controversy was a pending federal civil rights lawsuit by Sgt. Cornelius Rodgers, a Black sergeant who claims systemic racism at the department during his career. Lt. Robert Pickett, who is white, has responded to allegations in Rodgers’ suit by filing his own discrimination complaint.

A female police detective at the department, Melissa Schafranski-Broadbent has a pending lawsuit claiming gender discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment.

State Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, who also serves as a New London police officer, said he has seen the complaints and distrust build in the department. He said the source of frustrations is related to just a small handful of officers, and that Wright appeared to be making changes that have led to a turnaround in behavior.

“The reason it’s so crazy right now is people who have been here for 20 plus years have been so comfortable in doing things they should not have,” Nolan said. “Now that Wright is in place, not only is he a Black man, he is putting a stop to the behavior ... asking officers to have respect for one another, have respect for the community, how you treat property at the department and coming to work to do what you are supposed to do and stop acting like asses.”

Nolan said there has been resistance. “New London has great, great officers. It’s a few officers making it hard for us," he said. "It’s just unfortunate.”

Nolan has advocated for completion of both investigations promoted by complaints from Rodgers and Schafranski-Broadbent. One recent letter to Mayor Passero calls for completion of an investigation into two officers named in Schafranski-Broadbent’s complaint. One internal investigation was completed by Wright and a disciplinary hearing for one officer has been scheduled.

The result of Nolan’s advocacy, he said, was notes recently left on his vehicle, including one that said, “Be a cop not a politician,” and another reading something to the effect of “who’s gonna watch your back.”

He says the notes are not the first attempt at intimidation from someone within the department.

Both Nolan and Brooks credited Capt. Todd Bergeson and Capt. Matthew Galante with professionalism in the face of controversy. Bergeson and Galante are the two top-ranking officers in the department during Wright’s absence, and are people Brooks said he is relying on to help lead.

Brooks, during his time in Hartford, was embroiled in his own controversy and was part of the focus of the outside investigation ordered by Hartford’s mayor in 2011. He was transferred from his post as internal affairs commander in part because of allegations that he had targeted his superior officers in investigations for his own personal gain. While criticized in the independent review, Brooks was cleared of claims he unfairly picked superior officers for investigation or was motivated by personal gain.  

Brooks, who is Black, had filed a complaint with the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities during that time about his treatment at the department, especially compared to his white counterparts. He eventually would go on to attend the FBI National Academy and be appointed to the position of deputy chief.

Brooks started his law enforcement career with short stints at the Rocky Hill Police Department in 1986 and state police in 1987 before becoming a private investigator from 1988 to 1994, the year he joined the Hartford Police Department. In Hartford, Brooks had worked his way through the ranks and served as everything from major crime detective and later major crime division supervisor to commander of the K-9 unit and Vice and Narcotics Division supervisor.

Brooks retired from Hartford in 2016, worked for about a year in security and remains a law consultant associated with FirstNet, a public safety network created to respond to challenges during the response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

He said he still has a passion for police work and was looking for the right opportunity that would bring him back into the law enforcement field. He said it’s likely why his name came up during the expedited search for Wright's replacement.

Brooks declined to weigh in on any of the several ongoing investigations within the department. Hearkening back to his work in internal affairs, Brooks said, “Let the facts play out, and if there was wrongdoing, there needs to be accountability.”

In the meantime, he said his stay may be short but he plans to stay visible and engaged with the more than 70 officers in the department.

g.smith@theday.com

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