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Conn. Supreme Court rules against police department in fired recruit’s bias case

The court sided with a fired Vietnamese recruit from the Hartford PD, affirming that his termination was a result of prejudice from a former sergeant

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Journal Inquirer
Manchester, Conn.

HARTFORD, Conn. — A ruling by the Connecticut Supreme Court has sided with a discharged Vietnamese recruit from the Hartford Police Department, affirming that his termination was a result of prejudice from a former sergeant.

On Thursday, a new decision was issued, overturning the Appellate Court’s previous ruling in favor of the Hartford Police Department. As a result, the case will be returned to the trial court, with instructions to uphold the verdict in support of Khoa Phan.

“Mr. Phan is extremely pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision,” his lawyer, James Sabatini, said Friday. He said the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities will decide on damages.

Phan’s human rights complaint with the agency is what initiated the lengthy legal case.

“The CHRO is pleased with the Supreme Court’s thorough decision and looks forward to this multi-year litigation being brought to a close,” said Michael E. Roberts, one of the human rights attorneys who worked on the case.

The high court heard arguments from both sides on Feb. 17, with justices’ questions focusing on whether Sgt. Steven Kessler, who has since been fired, influenced the decision to fire Phan by “tainting” other supervisors’ views of him.

The city argued that Kessler was not one of Phan’s field training officers, did not supervise Phan directly and that he only recommended that Phan be retrained, not fired. Another supervisor found that Phan had a “problem comprehending supervisory orders, (that he) becomes confrontational and argumentative.” Phan also had trouble making decisions and “understanding complex situations,” according to the supervisor cited in court records.

The CHRO, however, argued that Kessler and Phan’s supervisors knew each other well and that Kessler’s discriminatory attitude toward Phan influenced the views of other officers and, ultimately, the chief against the rookie cop.

“The evidence supports an inference that the plaintiff’s reasons for firing Phan were not genuine, but instead based on the impressions of an employee with a discriminatory motive,” Megan Grant, another CHRO lawyer, wrote in her brief to the court.

The termination happened long before Police Chief Jason C. Thody was chief. Asked Friday what he is doing to prevent racism going forward, Thody said, “This case goes back more than a decade, and what I can say is that this team has made diversity in hiring a priority, and has also made it a priority to build a culture that does not tolerate discrimination and works hard to make our department welcoming and supportive to all.”

Kessler could not be reached for comment.

“Satisfactory rating”

According to the ruling, Phan “received a satisfactory rating upon completion of the field training program and then continued to receive generally satisfactory daily evaluations from his superior officers, including Kessler.”

But twice in 2011, after Phan had finished his police academy and field training, Kessler made comments about his “ethnicity, nationality, educational background, and whether the Hartford citizens with whom Phan interacted could understand him,” the court’s ruling states.

In one incident on Jan. 23, 2011, Kessler asked Phan what nationality he is, and when Phan said Vietnamese, Kessler said, “Vietnamese, Cantonese, it’s all the same (expletive),” according to the ruling.

On Feb. 4, 2011, Kessler criticized Phan’s grammar and report-writing skills, saying that “criminals must be laughing at Phan behind his back because of his accent,” the ruling says.

“When Phan indicated that he would file a grievance against Kessler if he did not stop making such comments, Kessler ordered Phan out of his office and told him to ‘watch what you tell me or you won’t be around long,’” the ruling says.

Kessler sent a memo to the commander of the police academy calling Phan “argumentative and confrontational,” according to the ruling, and it was only then that other officers began labeling him the same way.

Officers continued to pile on, with one saying daily observation reports were missing from Phan’s file and others adding that seven months earlier, Phan had lost part of his uniform, the ruling says.

Phan’s truthfulness was questioned when it was learned he had a false statement in a report about the lost item. But a superior officer had ordered him to include the false information, it says.

Finally, Phan’s words were twisted when asked why he didn’t fire his Taser at a suspect who was struggling with officers, with whom he was entwined on the ground. He said he didn’t have a clear shot and he didn’t hear anyone order him to fire the stun gun, according to the ruling.

“The questioning officer accused (Phan) of lying and wrote a memo to the commander of the police academy inaccurately stating that P’s failure to follow orders resulted in injury to a fellow officer,” the ruling says.

Fired

Then-Chief Daryl Roberts fired Phan on June 18, 2011, weeks before his probationary period was over. Phan filed the CHRO complaint and a human rights referee, or hearing officer, found in his favor, saying Kessler’s “discriminatory animus had tainted other officers’ reviews,” the ruling states. A trial court upheld the decision.

The police department appealed, saying Phan failed to properly establish employment discrimination, and that evidence did not support the finding that the discrimination was intentional.

The Appellate Court ruled in favor of the police department, reversing the trial court’s ruling. But when it did so, the Supreme Court found, it relied on evidence the human rights referee found not to be credible.

This wasn’t the only time Kessler was accused of racial bias. He had been disciplined for making discriminatory and/or racist remarks to others before Phan’s termination, something the Supreme Court repeats in its ruling.

And a few years after Phan’s firing, he was suspended and transferred from the community service division for referring to a group of Black men as “gorillas in the mist” on his patrol car’s radio, according to The Hartford Courant.

More recently, in February 2022, Kessler was placed on leave for making inappropriate comments at work, according to NBC CT.

It wasn’t clear Friday when or why he was fired.

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