After a years-long federal investigation, a 20-day trial and a snowstorm that delayed justice for another 48 hours, a former East Haven, Conn., police officer was sentenced today to five years in prison for violating the civil rights of Latino residents of the small working-class city.
The former officer, Dennis Spaulding, was one of four officers arrested by FBI agents in the pre-dawn darkness of Jan. 24, 2012. Spaulding, federal officials charged, was part of “a cancerous cadre” of “bullies with badges” that largely targeted members of the city’s fast growing Latino population, abusing their constitutional rights through harassment, wrongful arrest and racial profiling.
The officers also allegedly tried to cover their tracks by filing false police reports.
One of the cadre’s victims was a Roman Catholic priest who refused to be bullied. The priest, Rev. James Manship, the pastor at St. Rose of Lima in New Haven, was arrested on Feb. 19, 2009, while videotaping police officers in his campaign to document what he said was police harassment of Latinos. The priest was charged with disorderly conduct and interfering with the police.
According to an Associated Press story that ran in The New York Times, the officers said in their report that Father Manship struggled with them at a neighborhood grocery store when they tried to take from him an “unknown shiny silver object” he was holding.
The case was quickly dismissed when Father Manship released a video of the encounter backing his version of events.
The priest and his parishioners, The AP reported, then filed a complaint with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division asking that the East Haven police department be investigated on claims of brutality and racial profiling of Latinos.
Three years later, the FBI swooped in and arrested the alleged “bullies with badges.” Two of the four disgraced officers – Officer Jason Zullo and Sgt. John Miller, one of their supervisors – pleaded guilty last year to lesser charges unrelated to racial profiling, according to The New Haven Register.
Zullo was sentenced to two years in federal prison. Miller is scheduled for sentencing in February.
But Spaulding and Officer David Cari went to trial, which ended after 20 days with their convictions in October.
“It’s a sad day,” the Register reported Father Manship as saying after the guilty verdicts and the mother of one of the officers left the courtroom in tears.
At the trial, according to the Register, Father Manship testified that dozens of his Latino parishioners had come to him with stories of harassment and abuse at the hands of the East Haven police. That’s when he decided to video and document police behavior.
In the meantime, he testified, “I warned people not to travel to East Haven.”
In a blistering editorial after the guilty verdicts, the Register said the officers had inflicted “deep harm” on the residents of East Haven and brought “shame” upon the city. “They were the antithesis of what officers should be,” the paper said.
It wasn’t always so. In 2006, Cari saved a fellow officer’s life when Cari jumped on a robbery suspect who had his finger on the trigger of a pistol. During the struggle, the man shot Cari in the back. Cari recovered and went back to work but was haunted by PTSD, his lawyer told the court in pleading for leniency.
The four police officers weren’t the only ones to bring shame or at least controversy to East Haven. When asked on the night his officers were arrested what he planned to do improve relations and trust with the Latino community, Mayor Joseph Maturo, according to the Register, told a New York City television station that he “might go home and have tacos for dinner.”
The mayor later apologized and was re-elected in November.
On Tuesday, Cari was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison. Spaulding was supposed to be sentenced next but the judge, Alvin W. Thompson, postponed his sentencing until today because of a snowstorm.
The storm snarled traffic, forced the cancellation of numerous local events and delayed, but did not deny, justice.
“They were using their authority as police officers to undermine the community,” Father Manship told Hatewatch today. ” There’s a frame of reference, looking at the other as someone apart, separate from the community. It allowed these things to happen, virtually unchecked.”
“We didn’t get to this point in East Haven overnight,” the priest continued. “And we’re not going to get out of it in a rapid, quick-fix motion,”