Hartford police begin New Year with old civil rights problem

Graduates of a Hartford Police Department Academy class in 2012.

Hartford Police Department photo

Graduates of a Hartford Police Department Academy class in 2012.

It was the late 1960s and many American cities were ablaze with racial tensions that often resulted in rioting and violence. Hartford was no exception.

In one incident, police turned dogs loose on a crowd that was throwing bottles and bricks. A peaceful protester was mauled by one of the dogs.

Hartford’s minorities accused the police of other incidents of beatings and  excessive use of force in a relationship that continued to fray.

Then Maria Cintron’s son, an Hispanic, was hit by a white man with a stick. She called the police. The officer who responded seized the stick but let the assailant go. That stick may have been the last straw.

Cintron believed that if a Hispanic man had hit a non-Hispanic white boy, he would have been arrested.

Fed up with what they viewed as discriminatory treatment by the Hartford police, Cintron, two other individuals and four civil rights groups sued the city. The result was a consent decree that has cast a shadow over Hartford and it’s police department for 40 years and is likely to do so for many years more.

Since 1973, the Hartford police department has been bound by the terms of the agreement that settled the Cintron v. Vaughn case (named after the police chief at the time, Thomas Vaughn.)

The police shooting of a 14-year-old black robbery suspect in 1999 didn’t help the city win a release from the requirements of the consent decree. But the main reason the Hartford police force is still embroiled in the long-running civil suit is that it hasn’t been able to hire enough minority police officers.

The 1973 consent decree required the Hartford police to develop a new procedure for internal review of complaints against its officers, including interviewing all available witnesses. It also restricted the use of firearms, mandated police to meet regularly with community groups and required the city of Hartford to “improve its affirmative action plan to recruit policemen in the appropriate labor market to reflect properly the minority community.”

The August 2014, shooting of black teen Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., a mostly black city, focused attention on the problems that can occur when a police force does not mirror the community it serves.

Since then, police violence against minorities in Baltimore; Staten Island, N.Y.; Charleston, S.C., and elsewhere, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement have added to the scrutiny.

 A report by Governing, a magazine that focuses on state and local political and policy news, used data from 2013 and ranked Hartford 7th among police departments when it came to the largest gaps between minority populations and their representation on the local police force. The difference in Hartford, a city that has an 84 percent minority population, was 48.8 percentage points. The national average was 24 percentage points.

In its study, Governing surveyed 269 local police departments serving more than 100,000 residents.

It found that minorities are under-represented in other large departments in the state too. Only New Jersey (39 percentage points) recorded a greater minority under-representation among cities in the study than Connecticut (36 percentage points), followed by California (32 percentage points) and Nevada (30 percentage points.

“Despite efforts to become more diverse, minorities remain under-represented in the vast majority of larger police departments throughout the country,” Governing said. “Particularly in jurisdictions experiencing rapid demographic shifts, police largely do not reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of their communities.”

More recent information about the ethnic and racial makeup of the Hartford police force, obtained by the Connecticut Mirror through a Freedom of Information request, shows that the racial and ethnic makeup of the 400-plus Hartford police force hasn’t changed much. Minority under-representation on the force as of July 31 was about 48 percentage points, the FOI documents show.

The documents also showed that as of July 31 all seven Hartford police captains were white males. Deputy Chief Brian Foley, the force’s spokesman, said the department has restructured since then, and there are now six deputy chiefs, four white and two black.

Competition for cadets

Foley said there are several reasons for the lack of progress in hiring new minority officers.

One is that since James Rovella became chief in 2012, the department has only had one cadet class, limiting the number of officers that the department can hire.  Twenty-two cadets were in that class, 15 were white and seven were minorities.

Rovella traveled to the White House in February to be among dozens of police chiefs to help President Obama roll out recommendations of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, a review of police procedures prompted by Michael Brown’s shooting and other civil rights complaints against police across the nation.

Rovella said he aimed to upgrade police procedures and strengthen oversight and transparency.

Muhammad Ansari, president of the Greater Hartford NAACP, said he’s not satisfied with the progress the Hartford police department has made in hiring black and Hispanic officers. But he doesn’t blame Rovella or the city for the under-representation of minorities on the force.

To Ansari, the longstanding problem has no easy solution.

“Chief Rovella has been trying; he’s been very cooperative,” Ansari said. “But a lot of African-Americans don’t want to be policemen.”

Besides negative attitudes toward police in the black community, recruitment efforts are hampered by large numbers of felony convictions of young black men, which make them ineligible for employment on the force, Ansari said. Others become discouraged by the employment process, which can take years, or fail to pass tests, he said.

There’s also the fact that the Hartford Police Department’s ability to hire minority officers is limited by budgets and by vacancies on the force as the result of retirements and other reasons.

“I think things are changing, but it’s going to take time,” Ansari said.

Foley said the difficulties Hartford faces in hiring minority officers is not unique to the city.

“It’s not just here, all police departments are struggling,” he said.

Foley said competition for minority candidates is tough, and many are attracted to other police forces that offer better pay and benefits. He said he was encouraged that more applications are coming from people who live in Hartford.

Foley said there were once very few applicants from Hartford, “a reflection of people’s attitudes towards the police.” But attitudes have changed, he said, and more Hartford residents are applying.

According to Foley, eight of the 84 current police officer candidates are Hartford residents. OF those 84 candidates, 56 are white and 28 are minorities.

Some of those applicants will be picked to form the next two cadet classes.

Yet there are those who think the Hartford police force isn’t doing enough to attract minorities. Sydney Schulman, a Hartford-based attorney and deputy mayor of Bloomfield, is among them.

Schulman has represented the plaintiffs in the Cintron v. Vaughan case and battled the Hartford police force and city government for more than 40 years.

“I disagree it’s hard to do it,” he said. “If they put an effort into it, they could. It takes desire. You have to actively go out and find people who are qualified.”

He also said qualified minorities who apply sometimes get rejected, including a Hispanic police officer from Florida whose case he has documented to prove the Hartford police department isn’t trying hard enough.

The officer was asked to join last year’s cadet class, but was rejected at the last minute.

Foley said the applicant was rejected because a background investigation found “credibility and disciplinary issues.” The applicant said he had a “sterling” record and a great recommendation from his previous employer.

Schulman said the Cintron v. Vaughn case may be the oldest of its kind. Over the years, the city has asked a federal court, unsuccessfully, to void the settlement, arguing it had outlived its usefulness.

Instead, the agreement has been modified over time, most recently in October of 2014.

In the latest agreement, both the city and the plaintiffs asked the court not to “sunset” the consent decree “until the Hartford Police Department mirrors the community it serves and attains national accreditation.”

That means the Hartford police may have to operate under the terms of the consent decree for a much longer time.

“This is a long-term fix for us,” Foley said.

There are more recent Connecticut police cases that involve civil rights complaints. In 2012, several incidents in East Haven led the FBI to charge four police officers with civil rights offenses and abuse of power.

The indictment charged the officers with harassing Latino businessmen by conducting illegal and unreasonable searches of their businesses.

Minorities are also underrepresented in other Connecticut cities and towns.  New Haven Bridgeport and Norwalk have the best representation of minorities in their police departments, but wide gaps remain.

Imbalance as of 2014 between minority population and police force
City White Population White Police Black Population Black Police Hispanic Population Hispanic Police
Bridgeport 22.7% 56% 34.6% 15% 38.2% 27%
Hartford 15.8% 66% 38.7% 12% 43.4% 20%
New Britain 47.7% 85% 13% 8% 36.8% 7%
Danbury 57.2% 87% 7.2% 3% 25% 9%
Meriden 58.8% 87% 9.7% 4% 28.9% 8%
Stamford 53.3% 86% 13.9% 7% 23.8% 7%
Norwalk 55.7% 73% 14.2% 13% 24.3% 12%
Waterbury 45.4% 81% 20.1% 7% 31.2% 12%
New Haven 31.8% 56% 35.4% 23% 27.4% 18%
Sources: 2014 American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau; latest demographic reports in 2014 from Connecticut police departments

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