When he first proudly donned a badge as a Suffolk County cop three decades ago, Howard Mandell walked a beat in Huntington, L.I. He made headlines a few years later when he and his partner foiled a bank robbery in Northport, shooting and killing the gunman.
After becoming a sergeant, he was put in charge of a newly created anti-bias unit, working with members of the Jewish community in combating a spate of anti-Semitic crimes in the early 1980s. Mandell testified critically about racism in the department both before the Suffolk Legislature in 1987, and later in a newspaper interview he was asked to give by his superiors.
Through it all Mandell, 61, repeatedly found himself the target of anti-Semitic remarks and taunting by fellow officers. He was referred to as "that Jew" and "Jew boy." One officer even threw a dime at his feet to see if he would pick it up.
Scoring highly on civil service exams sent him to the rank of captain, and one of the first acts by a new police commissioner in 1989 was promoting Mandell to the rank of deputy inspector. But with Daniel Guido's departure, Mandell's career hit a brick wall. He was transferred from a precinct to a desk job in support services, a position from which he was told promotions are not made.
Ten years later he sued the department and Guido's successor as commissioner, John Gallagher, alleging that anti-Semitism and reprisals for his whistle blowing kept him from being promoted.
The case was thrown out by a federal court in June 2001. But now, in a sweeping condemnation of the department, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals last week reinstated the suit and ordered a trial. The three-judge panel in Manhattan found that "anti-Semitic comments and behavior have traditionally been part of the culture of the Suffolk County Police Department."
The appeals court said that although most of the examples of overt anti-Semitism toward Mandell preceded his promotion to deputy inspector, "a reasonable juror could find this improved behavior reflects not a change in attitude but only greater caution by fellow officers regarding their conduct in the presence of an officer who outranked them."
"I'm delighted" with the ruling, said Mandell, who retired in January 2001. "At least now we can get our day in court. I feel vindicated and I'm glad it was such a strongly worded opinion."
In its 31-page unanimous decision, the appeals court also noted an affidavit from Rabbi Jeffrey Wartenberg, the late chaplain of the Suffolk County Police, who said he found that "anti-Semitism is a way of life within the department," that Jewish officers were held back in their careers, and that he had communicated his concern to every commissioner.
Although Rabbi Wartenberg said they all acknowledged the problem, he said the commissioners "failed to take any concrete action to remedy it."
"This proof indicates that department leadership, including Gallagher, knowingly tolerated anti-Semitic attitudes and conduct," said the court.
It said the heart of Mandell's case was that Gallagher, an Irish Catholic, promoted a pro-Catholic mentality in the department. Mandell quoted Gallagher as saying at an official police function: "We are all good Christians" and "We can all work well together because we all went to good Christian schools, were taught by the Christian brothers and learned good Christian values."
Mandell's claims were supported this week by a veteran Suffolk County Police officer who said he was unable to rise above the rank of captain "because of the system."
The officer, who said he was "afraid of possible repercussions" if he revealed his identity, said that although he is Roman Catholic, "there is a pro-Irish-Catholic bias in the department, and I'm not Irish. ... All of my supervisors have always praised my work and said they were totally confused as to why I did not receive promotions."
"It is widely known (and the record will clearly show) that if you look at the promotions made over the years, the lion's share went to Irish Americans," he added. "There's really a good-old-boy system that has long prevailed in the upper ranks of the Suffolk County Police Department. It's systemic."
Mandell contended also that the Shomrim, a fraternal organization of Jewish police officers that Mandell founded, became defunct under Gallagher's administration "because visibility as a Jew in the department was seen as a liability." There are about 50 Jewish police officers in the 2,700-member department.
Asked his reaction to the appeals court decision, Gallagher said:"I have never had any prejudice against anybody and if I need to prove that in court, I'm confident I can. ... If the court feels that in this instance there was prejudice against Officer Mandell because of his being a Jew, it is important to get it out of the way and go to court and see if it is true or not."
Regarding Mandell's allegation that he was also the victim of department retaliation for speaking out about racism in the department, Gallagher, who was appointed in 1997, replied: "I have no knowledge of those charges."
He said also that he was unaware that the Shomrim had disbanded.
"If it is correct, they should try to revive it," Gallagher said. "I don't know it disbanded for that reason."
The Suffolk County Police Department was founded in 1960. Mandell, a former schoolteacher, said his promotion to deputy inspector was made by Guido, an outsider known as a reformer who instituted a merit-based promotion policy. But Mandell said that as soon as Guido left, "the department reverted to its 'old-boy' practice of nepotism and cronyism."
Mandell filed the suit in April 1999 against the department and Gallagher. Judge Jacob Mishler in Uniondale Federal Court dismissed it in June 2001, saying Mandell failed to show that the departmentís actions were based on discrimination.
In reinstating the suit and ordering a trial, however, the appeals court wrote that Mandell had "adduced enough evidence" to support his claims.
Mandell's lawyer, Alan Polsky, said he hoped to go to trial later this year. Polsky said Mandell is seeking back pay and punitive damages.
"I think this decision will be very helpful not only to Jews but to other minorities," Polsky said. "It is very rare that an employer comes out and says I am discriminating against you because you are black or a Jew or a woman. And so we have anecdotal evidence and a jury will have to hear the entire circumstances surrounding the issue."
Along with the religion issue, Polsky also said Mandell "was carrying 'baggage' for having testified before the Legislature's public safety committee and for having given an interview that he was instructed to give."
The court agreed, writing that Mandell had "submitted adequate proof to support a finding that his public criticism of the department affected defendant Gallagher's promotion and transfer decisions."
More Stories Like This
The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.