Wednesday, May 28, 2014
Controversial Cop Out at Fountain Hill
Cunningham, a Fountain Hill police officer since 2010, was fired in February 2013 after being deceptive about a police surveillance tape that showed him approach a handcuffed and shoeless Richard McLaughlin from behind, place him in a choke hold, spin him around and then throw him head first to a hard floor. He also appears to be taunting McLaughlin, though there is no audio.
At the time, McLaughlin was being processed for public drunkenness, harassment and disorderly conduct. He later entered a guilty plea to those charges and spent a few days in jail. But McLaughlin sued both Cunningham and Fountain Hill over the incident, alleging that the police brutality is a violation of his civil rights. Represented by South Whitehall Township Attorney Richard Orloski, McLaughlin recently settled his claim for $95,000, according to borough officials.
It was not the first time Cunningham roughed someone up.
Cunningham's checkered past
As a bouncer at Jelly Beans Southside Jam in Allentown, Cunningham was ordered to pay more than $1 million after severely beating a bar patron who was annoying others with talk of religion and his missionary work.
In Northampton County, magistrate dockets reveal that, in 1993, harassment and terroristic threats against Cunningham were sent on to County Court. Also in 1993, bad checks, forgery, receiving stolen property and unlawful use of computer charges were sent to court. What happened at the County level is unknown. There is no record. It could be that he was admitted into ARD, a special program for first offenders, after which the charges are dismissed and sometimes expunged.
He still owes Northampton County $354.50 in costs for an old (1991) disorderly conduct conviction. The matter was referred to a collection agency..
In Lehigh County, Cunningham was charged with terroristic threats, harassment, disorderly conduct in 2003. Charges were downgraded to two counts of harassment and he was placed on six months probation and fined $600. He was later brought back to court on contempt charges for ignoring his costs.
Cunningham also has a history of domestic violence. In Lehigh County, Protection From Abuse Act (PFA) contempt charges were filed against Cunningham in 2003. That same year, a PFA was sought and obtained against him in Northampton County. Those PFA charges were eventually dropped by his battered girlfriend after a custody order was entered, assuring that his visitation with his son would be supervised.
Arbitration and Reinstatement
Despite this checkered past and unprofessional behavior as a police officer, Arbitrator Steven Wolf concluded last August that Cunningham was entitled to "one final opportunity." He then gave Fountain Hill and the FOP the opportunity to pay his $12,600 bill for three days of testimony.
Though Cunningham was reinstated, he would never patrol again. Chief Ed Bachert kept him on desk duty. Then, because of "concerns" that needed investigation, Mayor Jose Rosado had Cunningham placed on paid administrative leave. Cunningham himself began making complaints against the Borough with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The impasse ended with the acceptance of Cunningham's resignation during a special meeting on May 23, along with a $35,000 payment and promise to provide neutral recommendations. Attempting to fire Cunningham again would have been financially irresponsible, according to Mayor Rosado. He explained that the process would take 6-8 months, and that the Borough would pay 2-3 times more in attorney fees than it agreed to pay Cunningham. "There's also no assurance that we would get the outcome that we did receive," he added.
The six Council members who voted (Carolee Gifford was delayed by a medical emergency at her hospital and missed the vote) all agreed that it was time to part ways with Cunningham. But it was still a fractious meeting, with Council President Larry Rapp and Helen Halleman trading barbs. Rapp voted to approve the resignation settlement, and was joined by Norman E. Blatt, Fred Capuano, and Doug Trotter.
Halleman, joined by Philip Trable, voted to reject the deal. "No, no, no, absolutely not!" she voted. She was disgusted by any financial settlement. "Shame on the arbitrators and my colleagues for voting in favor of this, since [Cunningham] has been collecting full salary and health care benefits for several months."
"Listen up, you citizens of Fountain Hill," she said after the meeting. "These are taxpayer dollars. All gone to waste. When budget time comes, you will all be given a big shot with a tax increase because we are in a bigger than ever deficit. When you go to the polls, you know what you can do? Get on the ballot and help the Borough survive."
Rosado stated that the police force is now down to four full-time officers, plus the Chief.