City fights rehiring of detective who used racial slurs
Carol Ozemhoya | OW Contributor | 9/9/2019, 10:49 a.m.
Officials in Hartford, Connecticut are fighting the proposed reinstatement of a city police detective who was fired last year after making racist comments while being arrested on drunken driving charges, reports the Hartford Currant.
The city has asked a Hartford Superior Court judge to throw out an arbitrator’s award issued in May that would return Robert Lanza to the department under certain conditions. The city’s police union is supporting Lanza and has asked the judge to confirm the award. Lanza was fired in January 2018 after being caught on camera the previous August using racial slurs while in the custody of Plainville police, who charged him with driving under the influence.
The charge was later dropped after Lanza completed the state’s alcohol education program. Authorities said Lanza, who is White, used racial slurs numerous times when telling Plainville police they were treating him like an African-American. He also threatened officers and asked them why they were not showing professional courtesy to a fellow cop and driving him home.
In January 2018, then-Hartford Police Chief James Rovella, now the state’s public safety commissioner, fired Lanza for conduct unbecoming an officer following an internal affairs investigation. “Your behavior ... discredits the department, undermines the good order and discipline of the department, and damages working relationships with other law enforcement agencies,” Rovella wrote in notifying Lanza of his termination. “These consequences of your continuing employment as a Hartford Police Officer are wholly unacceptable.”
But in May, arbitrator Elizabeth Neumeier decided termination was too harsh a punishment and Lanza should be rehired, but without any back pay and with no guarantee that he would return at the rank of detective. Neumeier also conditioned Lanza’s return on evidence of continued or completed psychological therapy. In arguing against Lanza's firing, the Hartford Police Union cited several cases in which other officers were not fired for misconduct.
Union officials also noted that Lanza had never been disciplined prior to his drunken driving arrest and had received three merit awards and one citation from Hartford police. Neumeier's report also includes a number of mitigating factors for Lanza, including diagnoses for post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism and his continued sobriety.
Lanza, who joined the Hartford force in 2005, was shot at by a suspect in 2007 and more recently was stressed from working in the department unit that investigates crimes against children including physical and mental abuse. Mayor Luke Bronin on Wednesday called the arbitrator’s decision “stunning and wrong.” “We have already appealed and will continue to fight it,” Bronin said in a statement. “Nobody who used this kind of racist language can serve effectively as a police officer in the Hartford community.”
The city filed court papers in June asking a state judge to vacate the arbitration award. John Shea Jr., a lawyer representing the city, wrote in one document that “the award is in violation of public policy, including but not limited to the public policies in Connecticut of fair and impartial policing and against police officer misconduct that ... undermines the officer’s own credibility (and ability to discharge his job duties) and/or ... involves racial bias.”