Eyes on the Reprisal

Racial bias alleged in unwarranted detention of two black, elderly women

After holding the women for nearly three hours, Manka realized he had made an egregious mistake. But he couldn't simply apologize and turn them loose.

He exacerbated his errors by citing them for disorderly conduct.

And he wasn't finished.

Rand Carlson

Priestly: "After he had been humiliating me, intimidated me, and said I was going to be arrested . . . he took my picture and had me sign this, and he said, 'You are never to come back into Dillard's store again. If you do, you will be arrested.'"

Priestly had held a Dillard's credit card for more than 20 years.

If you believe the justice courts are rubber stamps for law enforcement, this case will do nothing to assuage your view. A disorderly conduct charge generally involves the writing of a ticket. Manka prepared a full-blown investigative report to support his actions.

Justice of the Peace Lex Anderson of Peoria listened to the evidence and perfunctorily convicted both Priestly and Patterson of disorderly conduct. He fined each $305.

Ronald Fineberg, the women's attorney, had argued that because Manka had no probable cause to stop the women, the subsequent charge of disorderly conduct was moot. If the women were disorderly, Fineberg said, Manka had caused them to be.

The prosecutor said it didn't matter that the women hadn't shoplifted. Just because they were innocent of one crime didn't excuse them from committing another.

They could have paid the fines and put the ignominious episode behind them. But neither woman will tolerate a criminal conviction on their otherwise spotless records. The case has been appealed to Maricopa County Superior Court. Judge Michael Wilkinson has it under advisement.

"To pay the fine is to compensate them for violating these women's rights," says Tim Ryan, a member of the legal team now representing Priestly and Patterson. "It's an admission that as an African-American woman, you should know your place."

Ryan, a former prosecutor, calls disorderly conduct the "oops statute," a hammer that officers employ to cover up their own abuse. He says Manka "abused his authority, engaged in unusually outrageous conduct and then cited his victims for complaining about it."

In addition to their appeal, Priestly and Patterson are suing Manka, the Sheriff's Office, the county and Dillard's, claiming that Manka violated their constitutional rights.

Manka did not respond to interview requests. Sheriff's spokeswoman Lisa Allen says Manka, a seven-year veteran, has not been disciplined for any on-duty activities and has several commendations in his file. But she adds that he was once suspended without pay for three days for conduct unbecoming an officer. It had something to do with a domestic dispute.

It appears that Manka's actions did not meet standards set out in Dillard's own security policy. That policy, which was not entered as evidence during the trial, allows security personnel to detain a suspect "only when there is little or no doubt that a crime has been committed. . . . The person must be observed in the actual removal and/or concealment of merchandise. If merchandise is being taken into a fitting room, you must establish a concealment by observing the customer and the merchandise count and description taken into and from the fitting room. . . . You should only approach a customer after you believe that merchandise has actually been removed or concealed. . . . If you are suspicious of a customer's motives/behavior, but the guidelines outlined in the apprehension section have not been met, you should not approach the customer."

Manka apparently is not the only Dillard's employee who flouts this policy. African Americans have long complained about the treatment they receive in Dillard's, which operates 338 stores in 29 states. Locally and in other states, grievances about Dillard's have accrued at an alarming pace.

Billy Mitchell won a $612,000 judgment from Dillard's after he was falsely accused in 1992 of trying to pass a counterfeit or stolen $100 bill at the Paradise Valley Mall store. Mitchell, who was 17 at the time, was buying a pair of pants when he was detained by an off-duty Phoenix police officer working in security for Dillard's. The officer approached him and said, "Come with me and don't try anything stupid." The guard led Mitchell to a room, accusing him of possessing "counterfeit or stolen money." He paraded Mitchell in handcuffs through the store. Mitchell wasn't charged with a crime in the incident, because the bill wasn't counterfeit.

In 1997, a federal jury awarded $1.56 million to a black woman who said she had been stopped and searched by Dillard's security guards because she is black. Her lawyers said the Dillard's store in Overland Park, Kansas, systematically placed black customers under intense surveillance even when they exhibited no suspicious behavior.

A slew of lawsuits and complaints to the NAACP have piled up against the Little Rock, Arkansas-based chain.

Dillard's officials declined to comment.

"It's nothing new to walk into Dillard's and immediately know that you are followed or watched," says the Reverend Oscar Tillman, president of the Maricopa County chapter of the NAACP. "I don't know when they'll learn."

Tillman says Dillard's is not the only retailer that seems to target blacks. But he wonders why, given the chain's record, it doesn't err on the side of caution.

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