BY DIANE DIMOND
In a day when the words “Catholic” and “priest” often conjure up negative thoughts, I want to tell you a story about a man who saw injustice and took on an entire police department to try to set things right. He would be the first to tell you he didn’t do it alone.
The Rev. James Manship leads the flock at the New Haven, Conn., St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church. He had been ministering to this mostly Latino congregation for a short time when, in the summer of 2008, his congregants began telling him stories about rogue police officers who made their lives miserable. Their tales of harassment, unwarranted traffic stops, needless arrests and beatings while in custody were mind-boggling to this young priest, the nephew of a veteran State Police trooper.
“I had such reverence for my uncle, Sgt. Robert Manship,” Father Jim told me. “Never would I ever think a police officer would lie,” or do the other things parishioners were telling him about.
Yet, after listening to tearful stories of almost daily intimidation at the hands of officers from the East Haven, Conn., police department Father Jim believed.
“There were three business owners and four workers who stepped forward to say, ‘We can’t put up with this anymore,'” he said. “It was the sense that they were not standing alone, a sense that their parish was standing with them in the fight.”
They revealed stories of how their driver’s licenses were kept by police after random traffic stops, how they had been ripped from cars and beaten. One man was pepper-sprayed while prone in the back of a police car after he asked why he had been stopped. Latino shop owners along West Main Street complained that officers staked out their storefronts and harassed their customers — immigrants from Mexico, Ecuador and Peru. Business was drying up. Families were suffering.
The priest and church leaders, including Pastoral Council member Angel Fernandez-Chavero, began to devise a plan to make a record of these stories of harassment and racial profiling — dates, times and police officers’ names. They knew they would need a journal of events tucked under their arm for their day of reckoning with city officials. Manship got a video camera.
Before their plan was fully formulated, Fernandez told me, he got a call from the priest on the afternoon on Feb. 19, 2009. “He told me, ‘Angel, I’m in jail.’ My heart dropped.” Fernandez quickly went to get his pastor, who had been charged with disorderly conduct and interference with a police officer.
The police report, written by Officer David Cari, would be proven to contain lies. Father Jim had not interfered. He had gotten a call from a parishioner urgently asking for help because police were back in their store harassing people again. The priest never gave it a second thought as he grabbed his camera and jumped in his car.
What police didn’t realize was that the store’s overhead surveillance camera captured all the action.
When Manship arrived, he quietly stood in the back corner of the store and turned on his handheld camera. The falsified police report claimed he “had withdrawn an unknown shiny silver object out of his coat pocket and cuffed the object with his hands in order to conceal (it) from police.” Cari wrote that he felt “unsafe,” so he made an arrest.
Cari’s lie was proven by his own words, captured on the priest’s camera. Twice the officer is seen looking directly at Father Jim asking: “Sir, what are you doing? Is there a reason that you have a camera on me?” The report would also claim the priest became unruly and shouted at officers, but the overhead camera showed that was another lie, as a docile Father Jim was seen being led out of the store in handcuffs.
An arrest for no good reason. An arrest that would spark outrage among the faithful and, ultimately, a federal investigation of the East Haven police department.
Fernandez-Chavero asked congregants at the next Sunday Mass to step forward if they had been victimized by police. Stunningly, more than 100 brave souls did. Another 100 or so quickly followed, and with the help of professors and interns at nearby Yale University they gave sworn statements for a federal civil rights complaint.
Last month, after a Justice Department report found the department had engaged in years of “biased policing,” four officers were arrested on charges of obstruction of justice, excessive force, false arrest and conspiracy. Their police chief (who had been calling Father Jim’s superiors to try to get him fired) was named as an unindicted co-conspirator and soon resigned.
More arrests are likely, but Father Jim demurs when I tell him people are calling him a hero.
“I’ve taken no satisfaction in any of this,” he said. “I just feel sad. One man told me he felt ‘hunted.’ I had a 20-year-old girl in here recently that still hasn’t gotten over her arrest and a teenager who saw his father beaten and is deathly afraid of police.”
The Rev. Jim Manship believes if one person’s liberty is at risk, so is all of ours. “But,” he said, his voice sounding optimistic, “the people were listened to, and that is really important. The federal government listened and agreed this has to be stopped.”
Diane Dimond is a Rockland resident, syndicated columnist, author and special correspondent for Entertainment Tonight. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net reach her via email Diane@DianeDimond.net.