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Meriden officer alleging unfair treatment settles grievance with city

Posted: Wednesday, November 16, 2011 3:17 pm |
Updated: 10:51 pm, Wed Nov 16, 2011.

By Dan Ivers,
Record-Journal staff
Record-Journal

MERIDEN - The city has agreed to reduce a suspension handed out by Police Chief Jeffry Cossette to one of the two police officers claiming a pattern of disparate treatment within the department.

On Tuesday, the police union and the city officially settled grievances by Officer Donald Huston claiming that two excessive force punishments he received last year were too severe.

An unpaid, five-day suspension for both violations was reduced to two days, and the basis for the suspension was altered from excessive force to conduct unbecoming an officer. A charge of performing duties in a careless or negligent manner was upheld.

Huston, who declined comment, will receive three days of back pay for the reduced suspension.

Both grievances were scheduled to be heard before the state labor board on Tuesday, but both parties agreed to the settlement.

"The parties have agreed to avoid the risk and uncertainties associated with any litigation," said Personnel Director Caroline Beitman.

Both excessive force violations stemmed from incidents last fall.

On Sept. 16, Huston was assisting other officers attempting to remove clothing from a suicidal man in a holding cell when he delivered a punch and two knee-kicks to the man. On Nov. 6, 2010, he and other officers were involved in an altercation at the Westfield Meriden mall when Huston twice kicked a man who was resisting arrest.

Complaints were filed in both cases - one by the man in the holding cell and the other by Cossette - but the Internal Affairs investigator, Sgt. Leonard Caponigro, cleared Huston of excessive force charges in both cases.

Cossette disagreed, however, and overruled Caponigro. Huston was placed on five weeks' administrative leave, suspended for five days from Jan. 27 through Feb. 9, required to get anger management counseling and additional training on arrest control and techniques. He was also warned that any further violations could result in his termination.

In a letter sent to City Manager Lawrence J. Kendzior in early April, Huston and Officer Brian Sullivan alleged that they were the target of unfair and disparate treatment, and asked for an investigation of the department. State police began an investigation, and were soon joined by the FBI and a private attorney hired by the city.

The allegations focus mainly on Officer Evan Cossette, the chief's son. Huston and Sullivan claim that numerous incidents involving excessive force by Cossette have resulted in either a lack of discipline or inadequate punishments relative to those they have received.

In one incident captured on a department holding cell video camera, Cossette appeared to shove a handcuffed prisoner, who then struck his head on a concrete bench and was knocked unconscious.

The incident was not reported to internal affairs officers for six weeks, but Caponigro eventually ruled Cossette may have violated use of force regulations. After a hearing, however, Deputy Chief Timothy Topulos reduced the violation to "performing duties in a careless or negligent manner," and issued a letter of reprimand.

The prisoner, Pedro Temich, was heavily intoxicated during the incident and received 12 staples to close a wound to his head. He and two other men who claim they were brutalized by Evan Cossette have filed federal lawsuits against him, along with the city and the department's command staff.

Asked about the reduction in Huston's suspension, Chief Cossette said in an email Wednesday: "The city is pleased with the outcome."

Police union President Michael Siegler said he understood why Huston filed a grievance, since Internal Affairs had originally exonerated him of the excessive force violations.

"That was his chance to vindicate himself," he said.

Sullivan, who was suspended for 30 days after an October 2010 arrest for driving while intoxicated, has filed a grievance that is pending with the labor board. Huston is also awaiting a hearing on a separate grievance against Chief Cossette, claiming disparate treatment and nepotism.

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