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Move to fire Bethlehem cop involves more than traffic accident

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Feb 24 2014 09:00:17 PM CST
Updated On: Feb 25 2014 04:18:03 PM CST

A public hearing Monday night on firing Richard Hoffman from the Bethlehem Police Department ended without a decision.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

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.

Hoffman told Brazinski he had been drinking at a Godsmack Musikfest concert earlier that evening, then went to the FOP hall, where he had two beers.

Brazinski said Hoffman agreed to a blood alcohol test at the hospital. The sample was taken at 4:45 a.m. Aug. 8, which led to the driving under the influence and careless driving charges.

After the accident, Hoffman applied for and was admitted into an ARD program.

Just before the accident, Hoffman was drinking with other police officers, inside the Fraternal Order of Police hall at the corner of Broad and Guetter streets in Bethlehem.

Sgt. Urban said he talked to seven or eight police officers who were at the FOP that night “and nobody told me they believed he was intoxicated.”

Hoffman came up behind Bethlehem Police Officer William Audelo, who was celebrating his birthday, and grabbed his boxer shorts, which ripped.

Audelo said he and Hoffman began “rough housing” in a brotherly way, Audelo, a martial arts instructor in the Marine Corps, acknowledged he took Hoffman to the floor. Audelo agreed the situation than got more serious, testifying Hoffman became agitated and came back at him, but other police officers stepped in and separated them. Hoffman was taken outside and soon left.

“Officer Hoffman may have felt embarrassed because he got taken down in front of peers,” said Audelo.

Audelo testified he could not say if Hoffman seemed under the influence of alcohol.

Police Officer John Desiderio, who called Hoffman his best friend, said he walked outside with Hoffman after the pushing match with Audelo. He also said Hoffman was embarrassed, but calmed down before he drove away.

Desiderio said he and Hoffman had been drinking that evening, not only in the FOP, but he could not say how much. He guessed that, when he was with Hoffman, he had three or four beers. He guessed Hoffman had about the same amount, “but I wasn’t keeping track.” Desiderio said he did not feel under the influence of alcohol.

He said when he walked Hoffman to his car and they talked, “he wasn’t slurring his words. He wasn’t swaying in any way. I did not believe that he was to the point where he wasn’t capable of driving safely.” Desiderio said Hoffman assured him he was okay to drive and he had no concerns about him driving.

If Hoffman was intoxicated that night, said Desiderio, “I don’t know how he got to that level.”

Sgt. Urban told Leeson that Hoffman acknowledged he was responsible for causing the accident; that what happened was a very serious matter; that his behavior is a problem when he drinks, and that he needed to seek help through the employee assistance program. Urban testified Hoffman also apologized and said that it was a low point in his life.

Other incidents and reprimands

* On May 14, 2005, Hoffman was detained by Philadelphia police after drinking with friends at a nightclub. When a fight broke out in the club, and police interceded, Hoffman became loud with police. He shoved a Philadelphia police officer identified only as Officer Diaz, who handcuffed Hoffman. When put in a police car, Hoffman yelled and screamed and “threatened to bring 20 guys down to get Diaz.”

When Philadelphia police later released him, he apologized to all of them.

Two days later, when meeting with one of his superiors, Hoffman again apologized for his actions and said he recognized he has a problem when he drinks too much and would be contacting the Employee Assistance Program, because he understood he had to get some help. The superior wrote that Hoffman recognized the seriousness of the matter and how close he came to losing his job.

At that time, Hoffman wrote a statement on his violation record saying: “I have a problem and am seeking help. I apologize to the fullest. And I am absolutely positive this will never occur again.”

* In December 2010, Hoffman failed to adequately search a person he had arrested.

The apprehended man had a pistol hidden in his pants. The pistol was found days later under a bench in the intake area of Northampton County Prison. Hoffman was working with a probationary officer when he failed to find the pistol. He was found in violation for not thoroughly searching the detainee, including by using a metal detector.

Hoffman received a 10-day suspension, because police investigators determined his mistake put several people at risk of death or serious bodily harm.

* On the afternoon of March 16, 2013, Hoffman had another customer by the throat inside Molly’s Irish Grille & Sports Pub in south Bethlehem, testified Scott Hunsicker, a security guard at the bar. He said another bar patron said Hoffman had smacked the guy before he started choking him, but Hunsicker did not see that happen.

Hunsicker confronted Hoffman and tried to pick him up. “He started yelling at me, telling me I didn’t know who I was messing with, he’s a Bethlehem cop. He lunged at me. I restrained him. I didn’t put him in any pain. I took him out. Then I closed the door and went back inside. My job was done.”

When asked if Hoffman was drunk, Hunsicker said: “He was feeling good.”

Charles Patrick, who owns the establishment, saw Hoffman confront Hunsicker.

Outside the bar, Hoffman also told Patrick he was a Bethlehem police officer. Patrick said he tried to talk to Hoffman to calm him down. He said he could not act that way inside the bar and gave him another chance to go back inside.

He said Hoffman “made some comments against my business.” Patrick confirmed Hoffman told him: “F--- you, I will cause you problems.” He said he felt Hoffman was making a threat against his business. He also said Hoffman did not seem to be overly intoxicated.

Later that evening, a couple of other police officers came to the bar about another fight that had happened earlier and made comments to Hunsicker about the way Hoffman had been removed. Those officers mentioned a specific “wrestling move” Hunsicker used to get control of Hoffman. The officers said that kind of move could not be used to take people out of the business.

Hunsicker said at that point, he did feel threatened and intimidated by Hoffman and his friends in the police department.

Patrick said when he learned about that, it added to his concern, because it clearly showed Hoffman had talked to other police.

Patrick said sometime after that incident, “we had a visit from the fire department, saying we were over occupancy. It seemed strange.” He said the fire officials who came to the bar said they had received the complaint from the city police department.

Patrick said he then became very concerned for his livelihood and that of his employees, so he called the police chief about what happened.

* Hoffman received a written reprimand from the police department for misusing a mobile data terminal in his patrol car on April 11, 2013. It’s a computer used to receive information from dispatch, run license plates and communicate with other officers by typing.

Hoffman used it to communicate with police comm center dispatcher Kelly Stefko over a two-hour period that day.

Leeson shared curse words used by Hoffman in his communications with Stefko. He said Hoffman also wrote unprofessional references, such as saying the police department’s traffic division was a joke and should be dissolved. And he wrote Stefko that “I’m so out of shape from all our drinking.”

Hoffman accidentally also sent his communications to a sergeant in the police department.

* In July 2013, Hoffman was one of several Bethlehem police officers attending a bachelor party in Atlantic City. They were eating and drinking in a restaurant in the Revel Casino late one night when asked to leave by casino personnel because they were too loud.

A statement from Hoffman’s lawyer was read to council at the beginning of the hearing, stating if council decides against Hoffman, he reserves his right to pursue the grievance procedure available to him under the collective bargain agreement provided for arbitration. It also stated Hoffman has waived the right to appeal the case in court.

Public comment was permitted at the very end of the hearing. Two people spoke.