Director of Liberian National Security Agency, Fombah Sirleaf, Sues NJ State Police For False Arrest and Racial Profiling
Fombah Teh Sirleaf, the current director of Liberia’s National Security Agency and stepson of the President of Liberia, is moving forward with a lawsuit against New Jersey...
February 20, 2016
The head of Liberia's National Security Agency claims he was racially profiled and illegally detained by state troopers at a New Jersey shopping mall, NJ Advance Media has learned.
Fombah Sirleaf, the stepson of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, says he and a friend were cuffed by a cadre of troopers on a drug detail while they were loading suitcases into the back of a high-end luxury vehicle outside the Mills at Jersey Gardens in Elizabeth on Oct. 8, 2014.
The two are each seeking $250,000 in damages through a federal civil rights lawsuit.
Lawyers for the state deny the allegations and have sought to have the suit, initially filed in December 2014, thrown out. But a federal judge last month ordered the case to move forward.
Court records show the incident happened while State Police were arresting an alleged drug dealer.
The Liberian official said he and his friend had nothing in common with the suspect besides the color of their skin.
'A BIT OF SHOPPING'
Sirleaf, Liberia's top intelligence officer, said in an e-mail from his home country that he was in the United States on official business, had a layover in Newark and "decided to do a little bit of shopping" before traveling to Detroit.
His friend and co-plaintiff, Stanley Summerville, drove him to the Elizabeth outlet mall, where they bought suitcases for Sirleaf to carry things he'd purchased in America back to Africa, Sirleaf said. Summerville declined to comment for this story.
They were loading the suitcases into the back of a Mercedes SUV when they saw five unmarked cars surround a black man driving a white Lexus in the parking lot some distance away, according to the complaint.
The troopers, part of the State Police Gangs and Organized Crime Central Unit, were apprehending Newark resident Richard Parker. According to a State Police investigatory report, they were acting on a tip that Parker, who records show was out on parole for aggravated manslaughter, was "known to be a source" of heroin in northern and central New Jersey.
The report said troopers had been conducting surveillance on Parker in the mall parking lot when they watched another man pull up alongside him and make a "hand to hand transaction" through the Lexus passenger window.
The report's author, Det. Sgt. Michael Gregory, also noted he observed two other men "directly across" from Parker's car "manipulating items in a suitcase."
The troopers arrested Parker and searched his car, finding a bag with 200 bricks of heroin and $1,400 cash, the report said. He is currently back in prison on a parole violation, state Department of Corrections records show.
Sirleaf and Summerville claim they watched the commotion and then went about their business loading the bags in the back of their SUV when several of the troopers ran toward them, shouting, with their guns drawn.
The suit accuses the troopers of lying in their report about how close Sirleaf and Summerville were to the suspect in order to justify cuffing and questioning two innocent men. The complaint claims they were 30 to 40 yards away and only drew suspicion because they were two black men driving a luxury car.
"I believe we were targeted because we are black," Sirleaf told NJ Advance Media. "I say this because there were many white shoppers in the parking lot who were not subjected to police arrest or detention.
"The police ran past these white shoppers and selected us to throw on the ground and handcuff at gunpoint."
RACIAL PROFILING ALLEGED
The suit describes Sirleaf, 47, as a "celebrated law enforcement official" who graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point. His stepmother, the Liberian president, is the recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
In 2009, Sirleaf and his agency cooperated with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in a sting operation in which Sirleaf wore a wire during a meeting with international drug traffickers looking to build a $100 million cocaine smuggling route through Africa, according to The Guardian newspaper.
Sirleaf said that when the troopers detained him, he gave them the name and phone number of a "senior U.S. DEA official" who could confirm his identity, but the officer questioning him "refused to listen and continued to be demeaning and boisterous."
Sirleaf claims he and Summerville were detained for more than an hour as passersby looked on with "disgust."
Explaining their actions in the investigatory report, Gregory wrote that narcotics traffickers "frequently employ 'look outs'" during their drug deals and that he requested the surveillance team interview Sirleaf and Summerville "to determine their involvement."
The report claims that as they approached, Sirleaf "moved his hands to his waistband area" and turned away, prompting the troopers to order the two to the ground.
Sirleaf complied, but Summerville "refused to listen to commands and was brought to the ground" by Det. Sgt. Jeffrey Gauthier, the report said.
The report said Summerville later consented to a search of his vehicle and the bags inside, which contained "voluminous amounts" of over the counter medicine but no contraband.
An attorney for Summerville and Sirleaf, Gerald Graves, told NJ Advance Media the incident happened during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa and that Sirleaf had purchased the medicine because it was "in very short supply or in fact unavailable in Liberia."
The two were released after mall security footage confirmed their story that they had been shopping and had no contact with the suspect. They were never charged.
INTERNAL PROBE CLEARED TROOPERS
The men later filed an internal affairs complaint, but a review conducted by the State Police Office of Professional Standards found the troopers had not violated any state laws or division standards, according to a letter from the office dated Nov. 25, 2014.
An amended version of the suit accuses eight troopers of false imprisonment, racial profiling and selective enforcement. It also names State Police Superintendent Col. Rick Fuentes as a defendant, accusing him of ignoring a pattern of racial profiling and abuse within the division and failing to properly train its members.
To back up their claims, the suit cites the State Police's troubled history of racial profiling, including the 10 years it spent under federal oversight, monitoring reports finding black motorists are disproportionately likely to be pulled over on the New Jersey Turnpike and a number of racial discrimination suits filed by former minority troopers.
Through a spokesman, Fuentes and the eight troopers named in the suit declined comment. A spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, which is representing the troopers, also declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
But in a recent filing, Deputy Attorney General Adam Robert Gibbons called the complaint "a creative narrative of fanciful gossip," claiming that Sirleaf and Summerville "attempt to bootstrap historical happenings, wholly unrelated to Col. Fuentes or this matter, with the fact that (they) were detained by the New Jersey State Police for one hour."
Source: S.P. Sullivan - True Jersey