Sunday, January 20, 2008

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to get it



BRIDGEPORT, CONNECTICUT — U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4, says the city’s Board of Police Commissioners is not doing enough to support Police Chief Bryan Norwood’s efforts to reform and improve the department.

“You have a police chief trying to clean up the department. I think there are people on that commission who are on the wrong side of the equation,” Shays said during a recent editorial board meeting with the Connecticut Post.

Shays, a Bridgeport resident, faulted the police commission for not quickly firing officers accused of wrongdoing, and for spending months deciding on discipline. One of the cases cited by Shays involved a police officer who pushed his girlfriend out of a car.

That officer was eventually fired, but the process took months as he remained suspended without pay.

For the most part, police commissioners dismissed Shays’s statements, saying the congressman does not know enough about the day-to-day activities to judge the Police Department. They denied any suggestion that commissioners are not working with the chief, or committed to improving the department.

Other police officials pointed out that union contracts, civil service regulations and the commission’s own rules makes firing an officer a long, drawn out process.

Vice Chairman David Hall Sr. said Shays should have investigated before making his statements. “It’s a flaw in his character and leadership if he should make statements like that without the facts.”

Daniel Roach, another commissioner, agreed. “The congressman is a very busy guy, but if you haven’t been to any board meetings, you shouldn’t pass judgment on the relationship between the board and the chief of police.”

Norwood declined comment on the congressman’s remarks, but last year had said that any serious differences between him and the police commissioners had been resolved.

Shays, during a follow-up interview, pointed to several high-profile cases involving officers accused of wrongdoing. While the chief generally pushed for quick discipline, including terminating the officers, the police board moved slower.

“How can an officer push his wife out of a car and still be on the force? How is it people are granted pensions? As a congressman, it astounds me. As a taxpayer it blows my mind,” Shays said in the meeting with the editorial board.

“There is a huge need to ask every commissioner what they are doing to help this police chief succeed. The commission is not willing to back up the chief,” Shays said at the meeting.

One of the cases Shays referred to involved Officer Douglas Bepko, who was fired in August after pleading guilty in court to domestic violence charges relating to his girlfriend, whom he pushed out a moving car. The commission considered the situation for months before firing Bepko.

In 2006, the commission had acquitted Bepko and three other officers on charges that he assaulted an East Side store clerk. That drew complaints from the local NAACP last March, when a spokesman said the police commission was sending a message that sanctioned bad behavior.

Another controversial case involves Officer Brian Parker, who was accused of drinking while on duty. That case also took time to resolve, but Parker was fired in August.

During the follow up interview, Shays also pointed to Officer Murphy Pierce, who was suspended with pay in October. Pierce faces a citizen complaint and two sets of departmental charges.

Although the exact nature of the departmental charges against Pierce is not public — Shays said he believes the charges are serious — the congressman expressed outrage that Murphy has only been suspended with pay.

“Suspended with pay means he’s on paid vacation. You take disciplinary action, kick him off the force or you don’t do anything. This goes back to August and its January now,” Shays said.

The most serious discipline the chief can issue on his own is a 30-day suspension without pay. Any other discipline must be levied by the police board.

“These are examples. What the chief needs is to be backed up by the commission. It’s undermining morale and damages the community at large. A failure to act speaks volumes. You must make sure people who serve in a sensitive position are above reproach,” Shays said.

“They are not supporting him when you fail to act or act in a strong way,” he contended.

The congressman also faulted the Post for what he feels is not forcefully reporting on problems at the Police Department.

“You need a paper that aggressively highlights an issue. When a police officer pushes his girlfriend out a car it can’t be a one-day story. The Post needs to back up public officials who are trying to clean up the city, and I used the chief as an example,” Shays said, explaining why he brought up the issue during the editorial board meeting.

“He needs support from the public and our region’s major newspaper,” Shays said, referring to Norwood.

“We appreciate the congressman’s attention to local issues. The cases he mentions are well documented in the pages of the Connecticut Post,” said Editor James H. Smith. “We know the city has a good police chief and we also know there are good public servants on the police commission,” he said.

Police Commissioner James McCullough said the chief “bounces back and forth” in rendering discipline.

“He does some good things and he does some bad things,” said McCullough, who declined to elaborate.

Police commission member Ramon Larracuente called Says’ statements “broad. I would like to see him in front of the commission as a city of Bridgeport resident to express his views.

“I think it’s in poor taste. We don’t need fires being lit at this time,” he added.

Commissioner Theresa A. Brown deferred to Chairman Thomas L. Kanasky Jr. for comment. Kanasky was traveling and unavailable for comment.

Another member, Wendy Bridgeforth, was also unavailable.

Conflicts between the board and Norwood have been well documented and numerous articles have been written about disciplinary issues.

In May 2007, the chief and the commission agreed relations between the two had warmed following a blowup over a disciplinary decision.

Some of those disagreements apparently stemmed over differences in how the Bridgeport commission operates as opposed to a similar commission in New Haven, where Norwood previously worked as an assistant chief.

In Bridgeport, the commission can issue any form of discipline if an officer is arrested, or is the target of a citizen complaint. But the commission cannot fire an officer solely on the chief’s request. It must conduct its own evidentiary hearing.

Following a meeting with Chief Norwood, Commissioner Hall in May 2007 said the chief “had to understand that we have a process. He was humble enough to say we both need to make changes.”

Appeared Here

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