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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    Bridgeport detectives who failed to notify families of deaths docked two paid holidays

    The high-profile failures by Bridgeport Police to properly notify families about the deaths of two Black women in late 2021 drew national headlines, local protests, changes to state law and promises by Mayor Joe Ganim to hold officers responsible for their "unacceptable" actions.

    Internal investigations ensued, ultimately pinning blame on two detectives. The probes characterized one detective's work as "laziness" and concluded he didn't do a proper investigation into one of the deaths, while the other detective was "rude and abrasive" to the other family.

    Now, after more than a year of stalling to explain what was done to hold the officers accountable, city officials have released records to CT Insider showing the discipline doled out to each detective following closed-door hearings in June 2022 — a loss of two paid holidays.

    "This punishment is a mockery," said Darnell D. Crosland, an attorney representing the families of Lauren Smith-Fields and Brenda Rawls, both of whom filed lawsuits against the city last December. "Two holidays is a paltry price for the immense suffering these officers caused."

    The discipline could be reduced.

    That's because the union representing the detectives has appealed the punishment decisions to state arbitrators; those matters have been pending for nearly two years and it remains unclear when arbitrators will rule.

    When the internal investigations into the detectives began, the city placed both officers on paid suspension. But a different arbitrator overruled that decision for one of the detectives, prompting city officials to return both detectives to their prior roles, which they hold today.

    A statewide review of arbitration decisions by CT Insider that are publicly available found that 56% of the punishments that police unions have challenged since 2022 are either thrown out or the level of discipline lowered. In Bridgeport, two-thirds have been reversed.

    Experts said these cases raise broader questions about the challenges departments face to punish officers in Connecticut.

    "It does seem as though the arbitrators are making decisions which are very much contrary to my understanding of current public policy," said Mike Lawlor, who is a member of the state's council that issues and revokes officer licenses and who sits on a panel responsible for disciplining New Haven Police officers. "A whole series of these (suspensions and terminations) have been overturned by these arbitrations."

    Ganim and Police Chief Roderick Porter declined interview requests for this story and declined to comment on whether they believe they are able to appropriately discipline law enforcement.

    The long path to accountability

    Rawls and Smith-Fields both died in Bridgeport in separate incidents on the same day in December 2021.

    But Bridgeport Police did not appropriately notify the families about the deaths.

    At first, the families were outraged that it took so long for the police department to inform them of their loved one's deaths and how they were treated when being informed.

    And now — more than two years later — they are disgusted that they were left in the dark as Bridgeport closed the investigations, didn't tell them their findings and has refused to release records about their deaths that they believe could help bring them some closure about what happened.

    "You can't ask for justice in Bridgeport," Lakeem Jetter, the brother of Smith-Fields told CT Insider last month. "It's ridiculous."

    The discipline records were just recently released to CT Insider following an article by the news outlet last month outlining the concerns of the families and the lack of answers being provided by Bridgeport officials. CT Insider had also been asking for the disciplinary and other records for eight months, and has filed a complaint with a state watchdog to compel the city to release them.

    The punishment docking each detective two paid holidays was issued after the city's former police chief, Rebeca Garcia, concluded the detectives did not follow appropriate "standard of conduct" policies.

    The department's Internal Affairs report determined no one from the police department contacted anyone from Rawls' family for weeks to inform them what had happened to their loved one. No one from the police department reached out to the Smith-Fields family, but rather a note was left on her door with the detective's phone number. The family found that note and contacted the detective 31 hours after her death.

    Cronin was also ordered to spend four hours being retrained on "de-escalation" after investigators listened to a recording of his phone call with the family and determined he "failed to offer the most basic human dignity, compassion, or empathy" and that the call "deteriorated into a verbal sparring match."

    But experts said police departments often are conservative when doling out punishment for fear that issuing too harsh of a penalty could be reduced, if not thrown out altogether, later by arbitrators.

    "You have to choose wisely and do what is sustainable based on the facts and circumstances that you have,"said John DeCarlo, a former police chief in Branford who is now the director of the University of New Haven's master's program in criminal justice. "It's never about how we feel. It's always about what is the administratively correct thing to do that is sustainable in a labor adjudication."

    As national attention on these deaths grew and criticism mounted, Ganim said he was "extremely disappointed" in how his police department handled the two cases and ordered detectives Angel Llanos and Kevin Cronin to be placed on paid administrative leave until the internal affairs investigations were completed.

    Three months later, while the internal probes were still ongoing, an arbitrator overruled the mayor, and ordered Llanos back to work. The city also returned Cronin to his prior role after that ruling.

    "The union provided a persuasive argument that the grievant's (Llanos') actions — or inaction ... were no different than his actions with other similar cases. Since there is no record of the grievant being disciplined for his past actions regarding DOAs (dead on arrival), it must be assumed that his past actions were acceptable," Michael Ricci, an arbitrator with the American Arbitration Association, wrote in his decision.

    There was no indication at the time that the completed internal affairs report was considered in the arbitration decision. In fact, the union as of mid-May had stated that the internal probes were still ongoing.

    The arbitrator also found the department's death notification policies "has no prescribed time restrictions" for the detectives to violate.

    In Bridgeport, and many other municipalities in Connecticut, there are two avenues for police and their unions to challenge the discipline officers received; either through the American Arbitration Association or the Connecticut State Board of Mediation and Arbitration.

    The police union's contract with Bridgeport spells out that if a decision is appealed, cases surrounding terminations will be heard by the private, non-profit American Arbitration Association (AAA) and all lower-level punishments will be heard by the state arbitration panel. Depending on the contract, some issues are not subject to arbitration.

    Roughly half of police departments in the state rely on AAA to uphold or reverse discipline; those proceedings are considered confidential and are only released if both the department and union agree.

    "The parties own the ruling and therefore, only the parties have the right to release an award," said Ricci about his ruling he was paid by Bridgeport taxpayers to make.

    The challenge to Bridgeport taking away two paid holidays, however, is being heard by the Connecticut State Board of Mediation and Arbitration.

    "The union believes Detective Llanos and Detective Cronin followed department policies appropriately and therefore did not deserve the discipline that was set forth," Mike Salemme III, president of the Bridgeport Police Union, said in a statement.

    Llanos and Cronin could not be reached for requests for comment from CT Insider.

    Since 2022, arbitrators on the state board have overturned or reduced the punishments in four out of the six cases the Bridgeport police union has challenged. Those reversals include: a 5-day suspension for an officer who yelled "I am going to kill you" and other profanities as he was arresting a suspect; a 10-day suspension for a lieutenant who went AWOL on his shift; a 30-day suspension for a sergeant failing drug tests; and a 5-day suspension for a lieutenant failing to report another officer using homophobic language.

    Statewide, that same panel has overturned 20 of the 36 punishments levied on law enforcement.

    A recent high-profile reversal includes arbitrators overruling New Haven firing a police officer involved in Randy Cox being paralyzed after being transported by the officer.

    That state panel's record helps guide discipline decisions for police chiefs around the state and "what will stick" if a punishment is challenged, said DeCarlo, the former police chief in Branford.

    "It's not just a matter of what happens in the department at the departmental level but at the state arbitration level," said DeCarlo. "So you have to choose wisely and do what is sustainable."

    Some punishments are accepted and not challenged, or they are reduced through a settlement. However, it's unclear how often discipline decisions are not arbitrated.

    Salemme, Bridgeport's union president, said his union does not challenge every case and only files grievances when the officer disagrees with the punishment. The union did not, however, answer how often police accept the punishments.

    Poor management or bad arbitration decisions?

    Criminal justice experts, civil rights advocates, and attorneys who represent police chiefs in Connecticut said during interviews the path that must be followed for a punishment to stick is clear — and a discipline decision being overturned is a reflection of management not building a strong enough case.

    "There are times when — even though the facts or circumstances seem to the outside world as extreme — that the party (who built the case to discipline an officer) didn't do so rigorously enough for the arbitrators to say there was 'just cause,'" said Patrick McHale, an attorney whose firm represents dozens of police chiefs in the state.

    When determining whether to uphold — or reverse — a punishment, arbitrators look at seven factors to determine if there is "just cause" for discipline. Those factors consider if the employee was warned of the consequences, the rule is necessary, the violation of the rule was fully investigated, the probe was fair and it found "substantial proof of guilt" and the punishment was even handed and not excessive given their history and severity of the offense.

    "The employer has to do their homework and do the right steps in order to uphold the discipline," said Gabriel Jiran, an attorney whose firm represents dozens of police chiefs throughout the state.

    He called the arbitration hearings "mini trials" and that good management can navigate through if they make sure they build a case that follows the seven factors.

    But Lawlor, the New Haven police commissioner, believes that is too heavy a burden.

    "The only appropriate analysis the arbitrator should engage in is whether or not the conduct is in violation of public policy," said Lawlor, also a criminal justice professor at the University of New Haven and previously a long-time state lawmaker.

    "It seems as though the arbitrator panels are not appropriately focused on the current public policy," he added. "Many times the arguments that are presented are in the past; this type of misconduct has been punished with a relatively minor sanction, past practices say if you do this kind of thing you get a two-day suspension. I'm sure that was true in the past, but things have changed. Public policy has changed."

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