Lehigh Valley

Bethlehem council unanimously agrees to fire police officer

Richard Hoffman had been a full time officer since 2003.

Bethlehem Council votes to fire Bethlehem cop

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - What seemed inevitable became official Tuesday night, when Bethlehem City Council fired police officer Richard Hoffman.

Council's decision was unanimous and was made without any discussion.

The termination is retroactive, taking effect last Dec. 20.

That was the date City Council was advised in writing by then City Solicitor John Spirk Jr. about Hoffman's misconduct and the police department's recommendation that he be terminated.

Council determined that the 35-year-old police officer violated the city's code of ethics and Bethlehem police department directives.

Tuesday night's vote follows a Feb. 24 public hearing where the city's police department made its case why Hoffman should be fired.

That hearing lasted more than three-and-a-half hours.

A six-page termination resolution passed by council includes 36 "findings of fact" regarding the case against Hoffman, summarizing many issues raised in last month's hearing.

Hoffman has been a full-time Bethlehem police officer since July 2003.

After the council meeting, Atty. Quintes D. Taglioli, who is representing Hoffman, said council's decision is "not unexpected ...that's all I have to say about it at the moment. We'll proceed with the grievance procedure."

Taglioli explained Hoffman's termination will be litigated through the grievance procedure -- and go to arbitration -- under terms and conditions of the collective bargaining agreement that the city police union, Bethlehem Lodge 20 of the Fraternal Order of Police, has with the city.

At about 3 a.m. on Aug, 8, 2013, the off-duty Hoffman flipped his car at the intersection of High and E. Broad streets in Bethlehem.

He was charged with careless driving and driving under the influence of alcohol, with a blood alcohol concentration of .16 percent -- twice the legal limit in Pennsylvania.

Council's 7-0 decision was based not only on the August accident, but also on "overwhelming evidence that Officer Hoffman committed numerous prior violations of police department directives."

Those prior violations include the following:

*After being involved in an alcohol related bar fight in Philadelphia on May 14, 2005, Hoffman received a written disciplinary reprimand, in which he acknowledged his guilt as well as his problem with alcohol abuse.

He promised to get help.

During that incident, Hoffman threatened to "bring 20 guys down" to beat a Philadelphia police officer. He was handcuffed and taken to a Philadelphia police station before he was released to Bethlehem police.

At that time, he was warned he would be terminated if any such incident occurred again.

* Hoffman was given a 10-day suspension for failing to follow police procedures when searching a prisoner on Dec. 10, 2010.

That failure allowed that person to take a firearm - a 9 mm. handgun -- into Northampton County Prison.

Marijuana also later was found in the prisoner's pocket.

* When Hoffman was removed from Molly's Irish Pub in Bethlehem for fighting with another patron while off duty on March 16, 2013, "he misused his position as a police officer by threatening to cause trouble for the bar security officer and the bar owner."

* On April 11, 2013, Hoffman violated police procedures by using his Mobile Data Terminal to send "personal and obscene messages, as well as messages disparaging to the police department, to dispatcher Kelly Stefko over a two-hour period."

* Hoffman admitted that, because of his alcohol consumption, he had little or no recollection that he and other police officers were asked to leave a restaurant in Atlantic City, where they had gone on July 13, 2013.

Regarding the Aug. 8, 2013, traffic accident, City Council's resolution states that Hoffman agreed to participate in the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) program for the DUI charge and that the Northampton County district attorney withdrew the careless driving charge.

It further states that acceptance into the ARD program includes an admission of guilt.

The resolution states Hoffman violated a police department directive by providing untruthful and misleading statements about the cause of that accident, in which he struck several parked cares before his own car flipped onto its side.

He initially claimed he lost control of his car because he swerved to avoid a pedestrian.

Police said Hoffman was scheduled to begin his shift at 7:45 a.m. Aug.
8 - less than five hours after the accident -- but probably still would have been under the influence of alcohol and "unable to perform the duties required of him."

It took just over four minutes for council to determine Hoffman's fate with the city police department. After Tuesday's meeting, council president J. William Reynolds said the seven members of council could have commented on the case before the vote, but they individually decided against doing so.

Reynolds made the only comment before the vote, but only to thank Atty. Daniel Spengler, who served as City Council's solicitor during the termination proceeding, and Atty.

William Leeson, the new city solicitor who presented the administration's case against Hoffman with 11 witnesses at the Feb. 24 public hearing.

Hoffman and Taglioli did not participate in that hearing.

After the council meeting, Spengler said Hoffman will be notified of the termination and will have 30 days to appeal it to Northampton County Court.

But Spengler noted Hoffman has elected to file a union grievance for arbitration rather than appealing the decision in court.

Spengler said Hoffman waived his right to attend the February hearing before council because he intends to go to arbitration.

He explained the case could not go to arbitration until after council acted on the termination.

Elaborating, Leeson said Hoffman --- "through his attorney in writing"--- already has waived his right to appeal to the court but will go to arbitration under the collective bargaining agreement's grievance procedure.

The arbitration proceeding will not be public, but Leeson said the result will be made public because the arbitrator will uphold Hoffman's termination, reinstate him or decide on some intermediate remedy, such as a suspension.

The solicitor said monetary settlements are not an option under arbitration.

Neither side would predict how long the arbitration process might take, but indicated it might take months.

The first task will be to get an arbitrator and then schedule the proceeding.

Leeson explained the arbitrator will start all over by gathering his or her own facts on the case, rather than relying on what happened at the Feb. 24 hearing, the resolution passed by council or other related legal documents.

"Witnesses are going to have to testify, the evidence is going to have to be presented," said Leeson. "It's as if this proceeding before council never happened."

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