Two New Jersey police officers are suing their department for alleged retaliation after they complained about a fellow cop engaging in blatant racial profiling. Both officers have made history in diversity, equity and inclusion in the department, but say they still have experienced discrimination and that the department has systemically punished them for speaking out about discriminatory practices within the force.
On Friday, March 25, officer Preston Freeman, the first Black sergeant in the Westfield Police Department and only African-American on the force for his first 15 years, and Lt. Nicole Stivale, the highest-ranking female officer in the force’s history, filed a lawsuit in Superior Court in Union County, alleging retaliation and discrimination.
The 19-page complaint, obtained by Atlanta Black Star, was submitted on behalf of Freeman and Stival by attorney Robert Ballard several weeks after the two were suspended without pay for 45 days.
Their superiors hit them with 10 charges, claiming they violated departmental and internal affairs procedures, and departmental rules and regulations, when they wrote up a fellow officer for treating traffic offenders differently based on the color of their skin.
Their lawsuit states, “These trumped-up and baseless charges were issued by defendant in direct retaliation to plaintiffs’ complaints regarding unlawful behavior, as well as in furtherance of their discriminatory animus towards Sgt. Freeman and Lt. Stivale because of their inclusion in protected categories.”
When recalling the Jan. 29, 2021, incident that sparked the charges, the lawsuit said a white male officer named Christopher Forcenito was assigned to work the night shift alongside the two. The three were serving between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m.
However, based on rank, Forcenito was subordinate to the two officers.
While patrolling, the two officers said they observed their white colleague stop a Black male on East Broad Street for speeding and failure to keep right. As a result, the cop issued the transgressing motorist a summons for driving with an expired license.
Later during the shift, the same officer stopped a white male, who was driving 65 mph on East Broad Street where the speed limit is 25 mph. However, he did not give him a summons, only giving him a verbal warning before letting him go.
“When Sgt. Freeman questioned Officer Forcenito about the discrepancy in his discretion,” the lawsuit states. “Forcenito responded by stating that he did not have to issue a ticket for speeding and that the driver was a ‘nice guy.’ ”
Freeman and Stivale asked the officer to write up a report sharing why he chose to give one a summons and not the other, despite both drivers making “egregious traffic” violations. He refused.
In response to his insubordination, Freeman and Stivale filed supervisory complaints of racial profiling against the officer for his behavior that night.
The lawsuit states, “There was no investigation conducted into the actions of Ofc. Forcenito that constituted racial profiling and/or racially influenced policing.”
Instead, the two became targets.
Within days of their reporting Forcenito, instead of seeing a follow-up on the discrimination allegations play out, Stivale was told by the top brass she was the target of an internal investigation because she acted inappropriately when she suspended the officer for racial profiling.
Progressively, the force started complaining that the two engaged in unlawful behavior while on duty. The lawsuit alleges these allegations were in retaliation for them speaking up.
This was the tip of the iceberg.
The lawsuit afforded Freeman the space to speak about over a decade’s worth of discrimination he has endured as a minority on the force. In detail, the claim shows a history of acts that have singled out Sgt. Freeman in ways that seem to be based on his race.
The lawsuit alleges in 2007, his superiors refused to give him a patrol car when he was assigned to the downtown district. When he complained other officers (who were white) were allowed to drive cars, the 49-year-old was told, according to the lawsuit, driving a police vehicle was “for them and this [walking] is for you.”
Freeman also claimed another instance of unequal treatment: having to stick to a 30-minute lunch period, noticeably shorter than his white counterparts who would enjoy a full hour.
The most career-impacting claim was around the department’s 2018 promotional exam.
Freeman identifies the department’s Chief Christopher Battiloro as an agitator who attempted to throw out the examination results after discovering Freeman scored the second-highest marks on the sergeant’s test.
“Chief Battiloro made false claims about the validity of the test and further stated he would not promote any officers off the exam list,” the claim alleged.
Freeman hired an attorney and threatened to sue if the test results were discounted. The threat prompted Battiloro to “reluctantly promote Sgt. Freeman to the position of Sergeant.”
The lawsuit alleges the promotion was the nexus to a litany of bigoted treatment the officer experienced.
“As a sergeant, Sgt. Freeman has faced intense scrutiny and had his decisions questioned on a regular basis by Chief Battiloro and Captain Frank Padavano, both of whom are white,” the filing claims.
Also, he was subjugated to racially offensive conversations from his higher ups about people of color and expected not to say anything.
In June 2021, when talking about crime in the area, Battiloro allegedly referred to Black residents as “‘Ants,’ stating that ‘they are everywhere, they are like ants, you get rid of one and there is another.’ ”
The lawsuit brought up issues of gender discrimination, stating the department denied Stivale a promotion and additional compensation because she was female.
Stivale says she was slated to become the department’s accreditation manager but after the incident with Forcenito, she was knocked out of the running for that position. The job was given to a white male officer instead.
Ballard said, “We look forward to proving the allegations in the Complaint and seeking justice on behalf of our clients.”
The lawyer writes in the claim, “Plaintiffs have suffered, and continue to suffer, economic loss, harm to career, harm to reputation, bodily injury with physical manifestations, severe emotional distress, and physical pain and suffering.”
Lawyers for the officers are asking, on their behalf, for front and back pay missed during the suspension, compensatory damages, and attorney fees.
Kim Forde, the public information officer for Westfield, said the town has not been served yet.
The officers who filed the complaint are both currently facing internal disciplinary action as a result of an Internal Affairs investigation,” Forde said.
“When the Town is served, we will thoroughly review the lawsuit and vigorously defend the Town’s interests, as necessary,” she continued. “The Westfield Police Department remains fully committed to the professional standards of excellence for which it has been recognized through state accreditation.”