A public hearing on firing Richard Hoffman from the Bethlehem Police Department lasted more than three-and-a-half hours before City Council Monday night but concluded with no decision.
Hoffman’s professional fate as a city police officer will be decided by City Council at its next regular meeting on March 4.
The 35-year-old Hoffman has been a full-time police officer in Bethlehem since July 2003.
Shortly after 3 a.m. on Aug, 8, 2013, the off-duty police officer was in a car accident near the intersection of High and E. Broad streets in the city.
He was charged with careless driving and driving under the influence of alcohol, with a blood alcohol concentration of .16 -- twice the legal limit in Pennsylvania.
Hoffman initially told police investigators that a pedestrian stepped out in front of him, causing him to lose control, but later admitted he was distracted by trying to get a ringing cell phone out of his pocket.
“He thought he saw a pedestrian, but, in hindsight, said that couldn’t have been possible because the pedestrian would have been struck by his vehicle,” said Bethlehem Police Sgt. Robert Urban, who did an internal affairs investigation of Hoffman for the department.
The night leading up to the accident was dissected in testimony. But the police department’s recommendation that City Council terminate Hoffman is not based solely on that accident.
The council is also taking into account other reprimands he received from the police department and other incidents in which the department claims alcohol played a role in his belligerent behavior – including one where he allegedly grabbed a man by the throat and threatened a south Bethlehem bar owner and his bouncer.
Hoffman and his lawyer, Atty. Quintes Taglioli, did not attend the hearing in Bethlehem Town Hall.
After the hearing, Atty. David Spengler, who served as City Council’s solicitor, said it could have been held privately but Hoffman wanted it public.
Most of the 11 witnesses who testified were questioned by Atty. William Leeson, the city’s solicitor.
After Leeson questioned each witness, members of City Council also had an opportunity to ask them questions.
Mark Diluzio, the city’s new police chief, testified that, if the accident had not occurred, Hoffman still would have been legally intoxicated when he reported to work to start his shift at 7:45 a.m. Aug. 8.
Diluzio said his review of the facts led him to agree with the previous police chief’s recommendation that Hoffman’s employment should be terminated.
He agreed with Leeson that Hoffman no longer “can reliably and consistently maintain the high standard of conduct that’s expected of a police officer in the city of Bethlehem.”
The new chief said he is very concerned about publicity surrounding Hoffman’s case.
“It attacks the integrity of the department,” said Diluzio. “It attacks the public’s view of the department. You might say it’s an airing of dirty laundry of the department. The public has to have trust in their police department. This defeats that trust to an extent.”
Diluzio said the case also impacts the morale of the department. “This all attacks the foundation of your department. It attacks your discipline, it attacks your integrity, it attacks the credibility of your department. “
Retired Police Chief Craig Finnerty, who also recommended Hoffman’s termination,
said he could have given Hoffman a standard 5-20 day suspension, but determined the matter was more serious and warranted discipline beyond that.
Police officer saw accident
Bethlehem police officer Michelle Dologite testified she witnessed the Aug. 8 accident while on patrol. She was on High Street and about to turn onto Broad Street when Hoffman’s vehicle went by, going east on Broad “at a decently fast rate of speed.”
As Hoffman’s car -- a GMC Acadia -- passed the intersection, she saw it hit a parked car, then strike the vehicle in front of that one, then spin around 180 degrees and flip onto the driver’s side.
After blocking traffic with her patrol car, Dologite climbed up on one of the parked vehicles and yelled down through the open passenger side window of the car on its side to ask if the driver was okay. Hoffman told her he was fine. She said he did not receive any major injuries. She added she had no indication he was intoxicated.
Bethlehem police Sgt. Ronald Brazinski, who investigated the accident, said when he saw Hoffman at St. Luke’s Hospital, where he was taken after the accident, his eyes were glassy and bloodshot, but he was not slurring any words.