An Iraq-born U.S. Army translator and his wife have filed suit against the Dallas Police Department and a local nightclub, alleging that the husband was beaten and pepper-sprayed to the point of unconsciousness by off-duty police officers who made "racial and degrading comments" last summer outside the Al-Amir club and restaurant on Upper Greenville. Official police reports tell a different story -- that Lateef Al-Saraji was drunk, hostile and violent with off-duty officers who tried to get him to a cab after the club closed at 2 a.m.
The lawsuit -- which is currently "in limbo," according to Al-Saraji's attorney's office -- was initially filed last month in state court; on Friday the city asked that it be moved to federal court. In its response to the suit, the city denies all of Al-Saraji's claims and says that his injuries were caused by his own "unlawful, reckless and/or negligent actions." First Assistant City Attorney Chris Bowers tells Unfair Park, "The city strongly denies the plaintiffs' allegations. We will vigorously defend the city and its officers."
An October 2003 cover story in the Metro Times documented how Lateef Al-Saraji escaped Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 1991: "Unwilling to risk his life as a conscript in the army of a tyrant," wrote Curt Guyette, he pretended to be a soldier and "surrendered to U.S. troops during the Gulf War." Lateef's brothers remained in Iraq, working for the U.S. military, providing supplies; one became an informant for the Army and, shortly after he helped the military detain one of the Army's most-wanted, he was gunned down in a Baghdad street -- shot five times in the head and back. Lateef's stepdaughter is also in the Army. In time he too would go to work for the Army as a highly regarded linguist and translator, spending 15 months in his homeland on an extended combat tour.
The Al-Sarajis and DPD's accounts of the events of June 21, 2009, differ significantly.
In the couple's suit, a decorated military man is beaten without provocation by police officers hurling racial slurs at him -- to the point, he says, that he believed he was somehow being attacked by Iraqi insurgent agents in retaliation for his family's cooperation with the United States. Al-Saraji's wife, Teresa, says she witnessed the assault until cops told her to leave or be arrested herself. Last week she told The Arab American News her husband was far from the drunken, belligerent man DPD depicts: "We were there several hours, and he had one Heineken and maybe one glass of wine. Most of the time he was out talking."
According to court documents, Lateef, Teresa and two friends -- soldiers stationed at Fort Hood -- were waiting on a cab several hundred yards from the Al-Amir entrance when they were approached by a police car carrying two off-duty officers and the restaurant manager. Jumping out of the car, says the suit, the manager "punched Lateef in the head, knocking him to the ground." The off-duty officers are then alleged to have "joined in the attack" by kicking and punching Al-Saraji and using "pain-compliance holds."
Lateef, who was diagnosed in 2009 with post-traumatic stress disorder, maintains in the suit that he never resisted the officers, who called him a "terrorist" and "sand nigger" and told him to "go back home." Court documents say that officers then proceeded to hoist a handcuffed Al-Saraji into the back of the police car, where he was pepper-sprayed and knocked unconscious when he collapsed from the trauma.
According to the suit, Lateef told the officers, "I am a sergeant in the United States Army."
"So what?" he says was the response. "I was a captain in the Air Force." Lateef also alleges that the officers referred to him as "a terrorist in uniform." From the suit:
Lateef suspected that the officers were not really police, but, rather, were agents of some of the people he had interrogated in Iraq. He believed they intended to kill him. Lateef therefore, twisting his wrists in agony because they were handcuffed behind him, reached into his back pocket and called 911 on his cell phone. When [an officer] heard Lateef making the call, he asked him what he was going, Lateef said, "Calling the police." [The officer] then snatched away the phone and punched Lateef in the chest and ribs, screaming in his ear, "We are the police, mother fucker." Lateef was then choked and sprayed with the caustic chemical again, this time with a burst that lasted 45 seconds."
When he regained consciousness, the suit says, his wife and friends were gone -- the couple alleges that they were threatened with arrest themselves if they didn't leave. Al-Saraji was booked for resisting arrest, according to police records; according to the suit he was released from jail after 20 hours.
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Teresa says she then took him to Medical City Dallas, where his multiple bruises and injuries were assessed.
The official police record paints a picture of a violent, drunken Al-Saraji refusing to leave Al-Amir and then becoming hostile to the off-duty cops working security at the club. Incident reports filed by DPD say that Al-Saraji and his party argued with officers when they were asked to leave Al-Amir just after 2 a.m. They say they "came into contact" with Al-Saraji inside the club when Al-Saraji "was advised that the establishment was closing and he needed to stop consuming alcohol" and leave. Al-Saraji went outside, says the incident report, and was told he needed to "leave the premises." DPD says he then "approached and encrouched" an officer and refused to obey commands. Though a taxi had arrived, officers claim Al-Saraji refused again to leave and "fell on the ground" when told he was being arrested for public intoxication.
Police reports have Al-Saraji continuing to struggle with officers once he was placed inside a police car, where he "began to bang his head against the rear passenger door window very hard." Officers say he was "pepper sprayed to prevent him from injuring himself and damaging city equipment." Outside the police car, the off-duty cops reported they found what they claim -- but cannot prove -- to be, Teresa Al-Saraji's gun on the ground after arresting her husband. She was never charged with possessing the gun. DPD tells Unfair Park officers couldn't determine to whom the gun belonged.
Unfair Park has been attempting to speak with Gibson and his clients for several days; no luck so far.