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Suspended New London police sergeant claims discrimination

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New London — The city is planning to hire an independent investigator to explore claims by a New London police sergeant that he has been the target of discrimination and unfair treatment.

Sgt. Cornelius “Neil” Rodgers first made the claims last year, while an internal investigation was underway into an April 9, 2019, incident in which he punched a handcuffed prisoner at Waterford police headquarters.

Rodgers, who worked at the department for 17 years, claims he has been treated differently than his white counterparts and has called on the NAACP and state officials to look into his claims.

“There is a different set of rules here for white officers than there is for black officers,” Rodgers, an African-American, said in a recent phone interview.

Details of the incident that led to his suspension are detailed in documents, video and audio obtained by The Day through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Xavier Goode-Sutton, picked up on a warrant for failure to appear in court, had one arm handcuffed to a wall in the booking area at the Waterford Police Department when Rodgers, police reports show, punched him in the face and stomach during a struggle. Rodgers and Officer Zachary Kelley were attempting to retrieve a cellphone, previously seized as evidence, that Goode-Sutton had grabbed from a desk in front of him and had refused to let go.

Renovations were underway at New London police headquarters at the time and the Waterford facility was being used for processing arrestees.

“I then screamed at Goode to stop resisting and give us his hand or I would punch him,” Rodgers recounted in his report. “Goode stated ‘(expletive) you!, I then punched Goode on the side of his face once and then told him to give up his hands. Goode refused to comply, I then struck Goode in his stomach and then Officer Kelley was able to grab Goode’s left hand.”

Rodgers claimed that the use of force was justified, in part because a pocketknife also was within Goode-Sutton’s reach and it was possible it was in his possession during the struggle.

The internal investigation ultimately determined that Rodgers' use of force was “unjustified.” Chief Peter Reichard last month suspended him for 20 days without pay because of the probe's findings “and in consideration of past disciplinary issues.”

Rodgers was ordered to turn in his badge, firearm and department identification. Reichard also ordered him to attend training in both the use of force and de-escalation tactics.

Reichard provided the New London County State’s Attorney’s Office with the use of force report for review of possible criminal charges. State’s Attorney Michael Regan said his office reviewed Rodgers’ case and declined to pursue criminal charges. Regan declined any further comment on the details of his office’s investigation.

Police reports, which include an interview with Kelley, indicate that Goode-Sutton never had picked up the knife from the table and the internal investigation determined there was no mention of the knife during the struggle to get the cellphone from him, a fact that had apparently cast doubt on Rodgers’ contention he thought Goode-Sutton may have had the knife.

Kelley, in his report, said he had Goode-Sutton’s arm pinned and pried his fingers open to get him to drop the phone. He said he never saw Rodgers throw a punch but during the struggle did hear “what sounded like someone getting struck in the face.” He said he was focused on getting the phone at the time but did see some blood on Goode-Sutton’s face afterward.

Waterford Community Service Officer Alexander Hunt, in an interview with New London police, said he saw the officer yelling at Goode-Sutton to release the phone and observed Rodgers “strike Goode on the left side of his face with his elbow and forearm pushing Goode up against the wall causing Goode to strike his head against the wall.”

He heard Goode-Sutton say, “I’m cuffed to this bar it's unfair ... police brutality ... why are you hitting me.” When Goode-Sutton stood up, Hunt said Rodgers struck Goode-Sutton in the face with a closed fist.

The initial use of force investigation was completed by Lt. Robert Pickett, who determined Goode-Sutton did not pose an immediate threat to the officers. An internal investigation, overseen by Capt. Todd R. Bergeson, determined the same.

“It is recognized that Goode-Sutton was resisting the officer’s requests to turn over the phone. However, viewed in this context, there was no immediate danger to the officers ... at the moment that would have justified Sgt. Rodgers striking Goode in the face and stomach,” Bergeson wrote in his report.

In December, with rumors circulating that Rodgers could be terminated or demoted because of the incident, he reached out to the New London Chapter of the NAACP and state Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, for help. Nolan is also a New London police officer.

Rodgers sent along documentation of what he considered to be discriminatory practices over the past several years and claimed certain supervisors had “recently weaponized the use of force investigation to push an agenda.”

“Numerous white officers/supervisors have been under investigation by this administration for serious incidents and have not (received) any disciplinary actions or a lesser form of discipline,” he wrote in a letter to the New London branch of the NAACP.

In a Feb. 3 letter to Chief Reichard, Claire M. Howard of the law firm Madsen, Prestley & Parenteau, which is representing Rodgers, said she was concerned that the upcoming disciplinary hearing was “retaliation for his prior complaints of discrimination” and asked the chief to take no action until a city investigation is performed.

“Throughout Chief Reichard’s tenure, Sgt. Rodgers has been unfairly targeted, disciplined and the subject of biased investigations by Lieutenant (Robert) Pickett, Captain (Todd) Bergeson, and Chief Reichard, as compared to similarly situated white officers,” she wrote.

Rodgers cites as one example the case of New London police Officer Deana Nott, who was suspended for seven days and charged in 2018 with third-degree assault for hitting a man in the face while he was handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser in 2016.

“This was officer Nott’s second use of force incident — she was never disciplined for the first incident because Chief Reichard found, in a memo to former Chief Margaret Ackley, that federal court precedent allows an officer to strike first if they believe a strike is imminent. This finding was not part of the NLPD’s Internal Affairs into Sgt. Rodgers use of force incident even though Sgt. Rodgers believed that a strike by the suspect’s pocket knife was imminent,” Howard wrote.

City Attorney Jeffrey Londregan, in a Feb. 4 response to Howard, said the city takes seriously all allegations of discrimination.

“Our hope is to have an independent investigator retained in short order to research your client’s claims and perform a full investigation,” Londregan wrote.

The city had not yet hired an investigator as of Friday. Mayor Michael Passero said two people considered to perform the investigation had conflicts of interest.

Nolan, in a recent interview, said he will act in his capacity as a state representative to investigate the history of disciplinary practices at the department to help determine if they are fair and doled out according to policy. He said he plans to ask for three to five years of reports by supervisors, internal reviews and other documentation.

Nolan, Rodgers and New London NAACP Vice President Tamara Lanier met last month with New London Chief Administrative Officer Steve Fields.

“I would question the fact he was suspended for 20 days, which appears to be a lengthy suspension for something that was not found to be a crime, only a policy violation,” Nolan said.

Rodgers said in a recent phone interview that he credits the questions raised by the NAACP and Nolan as the reason he still has a job.

“They saved me. I am grateful because I’d be fired,” Rodgers said.

He said that he’s not one to play the so-called “race card” but his treatment by certain supervisors at the department led him to this point.

There is some video related to the incident between Rodgers and Goode-Sutton but nothing that captures the struggle and the punches, as the camera was not oriented toward the cubicle where Goode-Sutton was handcuffed. For that reason, and because it includes profanity, The Day has decided not to share that video.

Goode-Sutton is a felon with criminal convictions that date back to 2010, including on charges of second-degree robbery, assault, violation of a protective order, probation violation and disorderly conduct.

Public records show Goode-Sutton, 29, remains held in prison on pending charges of second-degree assault, third-degree strangulation and breach of peace from a Dec. 17 arrest in New London.

Day archives show that Rodgers, who has been with the department since 2003, was arrested at a bar in downtown New London in 2005 for allegedly yelling at a woman and punching a bouncer. Court records do not indicate he was ever convicted of a crime in the incident.

g.smith@theday.com

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