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Ten white Chattanooga police officers soon may share $725,000 if City Council members today approve settling a 7-year-old racial discrimination lawsuit.
The council is set to vote on a resolution to pay Chattanooga police Lt. Bobby Rodgers and nine other officers the settlement. The resolution aims to avoid a trial over claims that the police department in 2005 refused to promote white officers. The officers claimed that then-Police Chief Steve Parks imposed a promotion freeze but temporarily lifted the ban to elevate a black officer from lieutenant to captain.
According to the lawsuit, the promotion freeze came about after members of the council criticized the department for a perceived lack of ranking black officers.
Rodgers had been with the department for more than 20 years. In his lawsuit, he claimed he had "consistently received outstanding performance reviews and commendations" and met all requirements for promotion from sergeant to lieutenant. In March 2005, according to the suit, there was a lieutenant vacancy when Officer Tracy Arnold, who is black, was promoted to captain. But when Rodgers filed for promotion to fill the spot, he was denied by Parks because of the promotion freeze. The nine other officers, who later joined the lawsuit, had similar claims. At the time of the lawsuit, their experience in the police department ranged from nine to 26 years.
A motion hearing for the case was continued Monday in Hamilton County Circuit Court, "in anticipation of the case being approved [by the council]," according to Steven Dobson, the lawyer representing the 10 officers. If the council doesn't approve the settlement, a motion hearing will be held Aug. 5, according to court records.
Dobson said Monday most of his clients eventually were promoted, and some have retired, but that doesn't absolve the city of discrimination the officers endured previously.
Dobson declined to comment on how the $725,000 settlement would be split if approved, but the initial suit requested that each officer be awarded back pay they would have received had they been initially promoted.
Since the lawsuit, the police department changed its promotion procedure. The old way ranked promotion candidates according to evaluation scores, and the chief of police only promoted from a pool of the top six scorers. Council members had said that system prevented minority officers from being promoted, according to the lawsuit.
Now the chief of police may promote from an alphabetical list of the top 20 scores on a full evaluation.
Council Chairman Yusuf Hakeem was one of the council members pushing for changes that would lead to more black promotions at the time. But he said Monday the "top 20 system" is fair and equitable -- and the case has been "lingering for some time."
"When you look at tests, there are cultural differences and to some degree some biases. I think this levels the playing field," Hakeem said. "I was not the best test-taker, but I think my actions have showed that I am capable."
Hakeem said Monday he would support the settlement.
Dobson said Monday the settlement did not address the promotion procedure or any other request aside from monetary compensation.
"Our suit is really not to redress that; it's really about these plaintiffs," Dobson said. "[The money] would settle the claims of all those plaintiffs."
Lacie Stone, a spokeswoman for Mayor Andy Berke, did not comment specifically on the lawsuit, but she said the city was "in the process of looking at all functions of city government, including workforce development practices across the board." She added the practices Berke is working on are independent of the settlement.
City Attorney Wade Hinton, who has participated in mediation of the case, said Tuesday if the council approves the resolution the issue will be resolved.
Police Chief Bobby Dodd declined immediate comment on the suit and promotion practices at the department Monday, saying he wanted to read the filing completely first.
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6481. Follow him on Twitter at @glbrogdoniv.