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After NAACP meeting, next steps critical

Published February 23. 2012 4:00AM

The "town hall" meeting hosted by the NAACP Tuesday provided more evidence that a U.S. Justice Department review is necessary to determine whether recent police misconduct is indicative of broader problems in the department.

Most alarming is the case of Lance Goode. The black city resident has produced video from a patrol car camera that appears to show the planting of drugs by an officer to justify Mr. Goode's arrest. The officer suspected of planting the evidence, Roger Newton, has resigned and a state police investigation into his conduct and that of city police continues.

Connecticut NAACP President Scot X. Esdaile said at the meeting that his organization has received numerous allegations of prejudicial and unfair treatment "involving the same officers." A couple of African-American speakers recounted their own run-ins with police, claiming they felt targeted for no legitimate reason. At the meeting, the NAACP collected complaint forms from citizens, information they plan to turn over to Justice officials.

New London is a diverse and, by most appearances, tolerant community. The city just elected an openly gay man as its first strong mayor under a charter change. Yet the allegations of police misconduct and the perplexing dismissal of a black firefighter just a couple of days before he was set to permanently join the department, a department with a long history of being dominated by white men, is damaging the city's image and dividing the community.

Federal law enforcement authorities have the ability to determine if disregard for civil rights is systemic.

Meanwhile, with the election of Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, the police department is undergoing a big shake-up. Police Chief Margaret Ackley will be putting her own team in place. She needs to get the reputation of her department turned around, and fast.

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As for the case of Alfred Mayo - poised to become the first African-American hired by the New London Fire Department in more than three decades, only to be dismissed two days before graduating from the Connecticut Fire Academy - we suggest a fresh look. In so doing, we borrow from an idea proposed by one of the forum speakers, Mongi Dhaouadi, executive director of the Connecticut chapter of CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations).

We embrace Mr. Dhaouadi's proposal that Mayor Finizio appoint an ad hoc panel to independently assess the Mayo case and report to him. We would suggest perhaps a three-person board with a representative from the NAACP, a firefighting official from a department outside the city and a human resources professional, also with no city government ties. This panel could assess the documentation, talk to the fire chief, academy officials, Mr. Mayo and other pertinent individuals.

The panel could either affirm that Mr. Mayo was not a good candidate for firefighter or determine that he met the qualifications and his dismissal was unjustified. In any event, it would give the mayor an independent assessment and, depending on the outcome, perhaps avoid a lawsuit.

Nothing we have seen in the public domain appears to justify Mr. Mayo's dismissal. The decision came from long-time Fire Chief Ron Samul, who retires next year, and the mayor backed it. Mayor Finizio said he ran his decision by his chief administrative officer, Jane Glover, and Councilor Wade Hyslop, both prominent members of the city's African-American community, and they supported it. But neither Mayor Finizio, nor Ms. Glover, nor Councilor Hyslop spoke at the NAACP meeting to defend the decision. (The mayor told us organizers did not invite him to speak).

It was apparent at the meeting that Mayor Finizio's handling of the Mayo matter has damaged his credibility in the city's minority community. He needs to either reverse this decision or provide more justification for sticking by it. In either case, an independent assessment could be helpful. But the administration needs to act quickly. Things will become far more complicated and expensive if Mr. Mayo sues.

We also await from the administration an announcement of specific strategies for bringing racial and gender diversity to the city's fire department.

And we support state Rep. Ernest Hewett's pledge at Tuesday's meeting to conduct a legislative hearing into the Connecticut Fire Academy to try to determine whether attitudes there contribute to the lack of diversity on some city fire departments in the state. Rep. Hewett, a Democrat from New London, is a member of the Labor and Public Employees Committee.

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