When Sheilah Coley was selected to lead a New Jersey police department in April 2019, city officials touted her qualifications and said she understood how to make changes in a department.
Cooley was “extremely qualified,” Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora said in a news release. She had an extended career in the military and had held every rank in the Newark Police Department, including serving as police chief and police director, before she was hired as Trenton’s police director. However, Gusciora fired Coley in June 2021, saying that his administration “decided to move in another direction.”
Coley alleges she was fired because of her race and sex and her refusal to keep corrupt police officers in the department. City officials have denied the claims. She is suing the mayor and other city officials for firing her as retaliation for not complying with unethical behavior.
“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 a lawsuit obtained by Atlanta Black Star.
Coley was the first Black woman to hold the position overseeing the department. However, the lawsuit alleges the mayor and Councilman George Muschal, a former cop, asserted themselves as shadow figureheads over the department. They demanded that she give “unmerited and preferential treatment of white” members of the force, the lawsuit says.
“[Coley’s] protests and refusals to participate in preferential treatment of white individuals were made reasonably and in good faith,” the lawsuit alleges.
Trenton officials, in response to Coley’s lawsuit, said on June 10 she was removed from her position because of her “performance and no other external factors.” City Council members upheld the decision to remove Coley by a 6-1 vote on June 24, 2021.
“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 faced scrutiny in the summer of 2020 for ordering officers to stand down as rioters reportedly looted and vandalized businesses in response to the police shooting of George Floyd in Minnesota. The Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation into Coley’s actions after receiving complaints from 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. Prosecutors, however, cleared Coley of any wrongdoing and closed the case.
“Our investigation revealed that Director Coley’s actions did not rise to the level of any illegal actions or violation of internal affairs regulations,” a spokesperson said 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 the mayor. Gusciora told Coley that Muschal voted with him 40 percent of the
time and he wanted Coley “to give Muschal what he wanted.”
“Most of the requests involved overlooking violations of law, rules, regulations, or public policy,” the suit states.
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. The suit 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.