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No matter how regrettable, New Haven firefighter Carol LaCroix’s use of the n-word to publicly introduce a speaker from the United Negro College Fund, New Haven Superior Court Judge Patty Jenkins Pitman is convinced, was an inadvertent slip of the tongue. “A single, highly emotionally charged incident,” as Pittman described it, led to LaCroix receiving a six-month suspension, a demotion and other discipline from the New Haven Board of Fire Commissioners. Her union, Local 825, turned to the state Board of Mediation and Arbitration, which overturned the harsh disciplinary measures. The city appealed to Superior Court, but ruling this month, Pittman sided with LaCroix and concluded justice had been done. As recounted by Pittman, LaCroix was asked by her supervisor to introduce one of a group of speakers, representing various charities, who were addressing an assemblage of firefighters at the Lombard Street Fire House in October 2003. LaCroix didn’t expect her boss’ request and was inexperienced at addressing large groups of people, the judge noted. Furthermore, public speaking was not listed in her job description, Pittman added. “When [LaCroix] introduced the representative of the particular charity, she stumbled over her words and was heard to introduce the speaker not as representing the United Negro College Fund, but the United Nigger College Fund,” the judge explained. Asked to repeat herself, LaCroix fumbled again, which created an uproar in the room. LaCroix, “embarrassed and tearful,” apologized — the first of “many, many” times, according to Pittman. LaCroix, who is white, had not exhibited racially-biased conduct or speech while at the fire department, and her relations with fellow workers, both black and white, had previously been problem free, Pittman wrote. LaCroix’s lawyer, Bethany attorney Norman Pattis, said his client was taught to read by sounding words out phonetically and goofed up in pronouncing Negro, under the pressure of speaking before an audience. The city wasn’t very forgiving. Her fire chief recommended LaCroix be fired. The six-month suspension and demotion recommended by the fire commission would have cost LaCroix over $30,000 in pay, in Pattis’ estimation. When the arbitration board overturned the punishment, New Haven retained William Clark, of Berchem, Moses & Devlin in Milford, to appeal. The city argued the firefighters’ collective bargaining agreement allows the city to make reasonable rules and that the use of disrespectful language is prohibited. The prohibition against such language doesn’t include an element of intent, New Haven contended, so the arbitration panel’s ruling improperly exceeded the terms of the bargaining agreement. Pittman found that argument failed to recognize the panel’s job was broader yet simpler: “to determine whether, under the circumstances, any discipline was warranted.” The panel found LaCroix not only did not intend to utter a racial epithet but she never intended to speak a word that could be mistaken for such an epithet. Pittman explained by analogy. Suppose, she argued, there’s a rule that firefighters can’t kick one another. If a firefighter accidentally kicks another while hoisting himself onto a truck and his foot strikes another, did he kick someone? Objectively, the answer is yes, Pittman wrote. Is this conduct prohibited by the rules? Perhaps. “Should the firefighter be disciplined for it? Most likely, no. And so it is here,” she reasoned. The arbitration panel had information about dyslexia and other neurological problems that might “cause someone to stutter or misspeak as LaCroix did,” Pittman noted. Although New Haven argued that such evidence was improper and that the panel came to the wrong conclusion, Pittman disagreed. She also rejected New Haven’s contention that clearing LaCroix violated public policy. Clark said LaCroix does not suffer from dyslexia and originally attempted to make light of the incident: “We did feel strongly that the panel got it wrong. She violated the rule, and many other firefighters were upset.” As for further appeals, he said the city is reviewing its options. Pattis said LaCroix was “crucified” for what boils down to a reading problem. “Carol LaCroix is one of the best witnesses I’ve ever put on the stand,” he said. “The city of New Haven went out of its way to crucify this woman as a publicity stunt.” Pattis said he has no doubt the city will litigate further. “This case isn’t about Carol LaCroix; it’s about the politics of race. It’s a PC crime. There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll continue to win at every stage,” he said. “I’m contemplating a federal action at this time against the city for violating her equal protection rights. We’ve learned that not everyone who uses the n-word is publicly humiliated and run out of the department.”

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