Copyright 2006 The Morning Call, Inc.
The Morning Call
ALLENTOWN, Pa. — The cover-up by Bethlehem City officials of a police officer pointing a loaded gun at the head of another officer is troubling on multiple levels. First and most obvious, of course, is that someone entrusted to watch out for the public's safety would be so reckless regarding the safety of a fellow officer.
But that's just one person doing something he shouldn't have. What about what other officials did or didn't do in response? According to Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli, it's "routine" for incidents involving police officers to be referred to his office "for an independent review." That didn't happen this time.
Instead, Bethlehem Police Commissioner Francis Donchez and Mayor John Callahan followed a quieter internal solution. Quieter, that is, until Morning Call columnist Paul Carpenter received an anonymous tip directing him to ask for an incident report with a "No Press" sticker on it. When the city solicitor said he could see it, this is what he found:
On Oct. 19, 2005, Capt. William McLaughlin entered a sergeant's room in the Bethlehem Police Department where there were three other officers. As he approached them, he took out his gun, checked to see if it was loaded, then held it to the back of Officer Keith Fryslin's head. His finger wasn't on the trigger. When Sgt. Edward Repyneck yelled at him, he reholstered his gun. The report described the offense as "reckless endangering."
The officers were shaken, but when Commissioner Donchez spoke with Officer Fryslin it was decided no charges would be filed if Capt. McLaughlin, who had just returned from several months' sick leave due to stress, would retire. He did so several days after the incident at 70 percent of his final salary.
Although a "supplemental report" stated the incident "would be over with" once Capt. McLaughlin retired, it also said, "We agreed that a crime was committed." But, crimes are supposed to be prosecuted by the district attorney before a judge and jury. This sounds like a secret, internal prosecution and adjudication by the Police Department where the punishment was retirement on a pension. That doesn't sit well.
Commissioner Donchez said he didn't refer the matter to Mr. Morganelli's office because he didn't think it rose to the level that needed independent review. Yet, his department's own reports said there was a crime. What message does this send to conscientious police? What will it mean to the accreditation required by the federal court settlement that resulted from the 1997 police raid in which John Hirko Jr. died?
Law enforcement here has suffered enough black eyes that those in charge should be doing everything in their power to uphold its integrity. It's good news that Mr. Morganelli is investigating this. But the inquiry shouldn't stop with what happened in the sergeant's room Oct. 19, 2005. It should extend to what happened afterwards, too.
Probe into Pa. police gun incident