Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora said Trenton Police Director Sheilah Coley was “extremely qualified,” in an April 2019 news release issued when she was hired as the first African-American woman to lead a New Jersey police department.
Now, Coley is suing the mayor and other city officials for firing her as retaliation for her refusal to engage in unethical behavior.
By the time Gusciora fired Coley in June 2021, saying that his administration “decided to move in another direction,” the politician learned that her qualifications and integrity limited his ability to influence the police department.
Coley served three years in the United States Air Force, had held every rank in the Newark Police Department including police chief and director.
She also served as the East Orange public safety director before she was hired in Trenton.
“She has been at the forefront of cutting-edge crime-fighting technology and understands how to make changes in a department that pay off in reducing crime,” said Gusciora, when he selected Coley, but Coley alleges she was fired because of her race and sex and her refusal to keep corrupt police officers in the department.
Most city officials have denied those claims, but a member of the governing body who is widely expected to take on Gusciora in this year’s mayoral election is rising to her defense.
“Trentonians, can’t turn a blind eye to the corrupt and criminal activity occurring in the Trenton Police Department. A CRIMINAL investigation needs to be conducted on everything former Police Director Coley’s alleges in her lawsuit against Mayor Gusciora and Councilman Muschal,” said West Ward Councilwoman Robin M. Vaughn.
“Of all the murder investigations you need to resource and solve for the residents of the City of Trenton you opt to help Councilman Muschal, a known racist, disparage and take down our Police Director Sheilah Coley!,” said Vaughn.
“Defendants repeatedly pressured Coley to capitulate to the racist and sexist refusal of white police union leadership and white members of the police department to accept the leadership of an African American woman,” according to her lawsuit, to which Vaughn posted an online link through her Twitter account.
Coley alleges that Gusciora and Councilman George Muschal, a former police officer, tried to hold sway over law enforcement and the police force.
“Gusciora continually pressured Coley to capitulate to defendant Muschal’s demands for unmerited and preferential treatment of White members of the department,” said the complaint.
The lawsuit alleges that her “protests and refusals to participate in preferential treatment of white individuals were made reasonably and in good faith,”
Coley claims the mayor relayed to her a laundry list of favors that Muschal wanted from her and the department, most of which “involved overlooking violations of law, rules, regulations, or public policy.”
City Council members upheld the decision to remove Coley by a 6-1 vote on June 24, 2021. Vaughn cast the only vote opposing the move to fire Coley.
“Our police force has made strides in many areas, including increasing diversity and promoting qualified law enforcement professionals regardless of race, gender, or creed,” said city spokesman Timothy J. Carroll. “Indeed, the hiring of Ms. Coley is proof of that.”
Coley was criticized in 2020 for ordering officers to stand down as rioters reportedly looted and vandalized businesses following a day of peaceful protests about the police shooting of George Floyd in Minnesota.
The Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office cleared Coley of any wrongdoing after it investigated her actions in response to complaints lodged by the Latino Merchant Association, a former officer, and a downtown property owner.
The ex-officer said Coley’s decision put lives at risk, and the store owner said he was left with $300,000 worth of damages as a result.
“Our investigation revealed that Director Coley’s actions did not rise to the level of any illegal actions or violation of internal affairs regulations,” said Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office in a February 2021 statement. “Accordingly, the complaints have been classified as not sustained.”
The lawsuit alleges a white captain gave a similar command but did not face any backlash.
Coley claims she was given a laundry list of favors from Muschal, which was passed on to her by Gusciora, who said that Muschal voted with him 40 percent of the time and he wanted her “to give Muschal what he wanted.”
“Most of the requests involved overlooking violations of law, rules, regulations, or public policy,” according to the complaint.
The lawsuit alleges that after Coley blocked a white male supervisor from allowing a white male supervising detective, who was found guilty of perjury in federal court, from returning to the job, the mayor undermined her and approved the detective for active duty.
Coley also alleges that Muschal gave a radio interview, where he “blasted Coley for taking money away from 12 white men – the officers on restricted duty due to their involvement of in-custody deaths.”
On June 7, 2021, two days before Gusciora announced Coley’s termination, the complaint says, he tried to force Coley’s chief of staff to leak department documents to the press illegally.
Coley fended off the mayor’s demand.
“I may be too honest for this position,” Coley said to Gusciora in a text message.
The suit says, “by publicly announcing” Coley’s immediate termination, Gusciora “illegally deprived her of meaningful ‘notice and opportunity to be heard.’”
During the City Council session vote on Coley’s firing, one council member referred to it as the “lynching of the first African-American woman in the city of Trenton.”
“The council member also predicted that the ‘White Captains’ were going to roll back progress made under Coley,” the lawsuit says.
After she was fired, the lawsuit alleges city officials reversed several of Coley’s orders. They dropped an internal affairs investigation and rewarded a detective who had lied under oath, the lawsuit says.
Coley is seeking compensation for loss of pay, damage to her career and reputation, emotional distress and humiliation. The lawsuit also calls for the city to implement policies, procedures and training to prevent future discrimination and retaliation in the department.