Vote on Bridgeport police contract comes at turbulent time

BRIDGEPORT — These are interesting days for the police department in Connecticut’s largest city.

A recruitment blitz is ending and current officers are preparing to vote on a contract, all amid some internal racial tensions and a simmering mayoral race.

Ten months after rejecting a three-year contract, Bridgeport cops Wednesday will vote on a four-year deal with Mayor Bill Finch’s administration.

“I’d rather have us make decisions than an arbitration panel,” said union head Sgt. Chuck Paris on Friday.

The contract dispute has been in arbitration since May’s “no” vote.

State law allows the city and the police to try to work out an amicable agreement even as arbitration is ongoing.

Like May’s proposal, the new contract offers 2.5 percent pay raises each year, seeks concessions and gives Police Chief Joseph Gaudett greater latitude to establish or eliminate new units, divisions and assignments.

“It would be in the union’s favor to get this approved,” Paris said.

Police rejected the original offer in part because of management reforms sought by Gaudett. The chief can now only suspend officers, with terminations ultimately decided by a mayor-appointed Police Commission.

The latest draft also provides termination power for Gaudett. That is a concern for Lt. Lonnie Blackwell, head of the Bridgeport Guardians, which represents black officers.

An email signed by Blackwell and circulated in the community called the deal “the worst contract ever presented to our membership, or any other Connecticut police department, in our history” and urged a “no” vote.

Blackwell, who did not return phone calls seeking further comment, also questioned whether a section of the draft contract eliminates the ability to file a grievance over “unjust discrimination.”

It is a sensitive issue, given that State Police are investigating racist letters targeting black officers that were distributed within the department.

Responding to Blackwell’s email, Paris said, “Lonnie never reached out to me or anyone else in the union attempting to understand the content of the tentative agreement. If he did, he would be more educated regarding each issue and what the impact would be for all members.”

Paris said avenues remain for contesting any alleged discrimination.

Asked what he is hearing in terms of support for the draft contract ahead of Wednesday’s vote, Paris said, “It’s pretty much 50-50.”

A disgruntled union could cause headaches for Finch, who is facing potential challenges for a third term from businesswoman Mary-Jane Foster and ex-Mayor Joseph P. Ganim.

Meanwhile, Sunday marks the deadline of the city’s recruitment effort to bolster a police force depleted by a surge in retirements, leaving 70 vacancies. Gaudett earlier this year said optimal staffing is 447 people.

There was an emphasis on recruiting locally, with Bridgeport residents receiving extra points on their applications.

As of Tuesday, 1,013 candidates had met the qualifications. Of those, 139, or 14 percent are residents.

The number of minority applicants disappointed some.

Of the 1,013, 560, or 55 percent are white; 233, or 23 percent Hispanic; and 152, or 15 percent are black.

Finch a week ago held a news conference with black leaders to emphasize the need for more diversity in the Police Department. While the city has been recognized as making gains in that area over time and having the most diverse police department in the state, there remain concerns that Bridgeport’s Finest still do not reflect the community.

George Mintz, new head of the city’s reconstituted branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, expressed some disappointment with the recruitment numbers.

“I would have liked to have seen those numbers reflect the community of Bridgeport,” Mintz said Friday. “I think the numbers tell a story and we need to find out what it is.”

Asked if the racist letters, which made national news in mid-February, could be partly to blame, Mintz said, “One would think, but I’m not a person to have opinions based on conjecture.”

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