Police Lawsuit

Buena Borough policeman Ronald Bonilla

Former Buena Borough police Officer Ronald Bonilla will receive $250,000 to settle his federal discrimination lawsuit against the borough and former police Chief David Sherma, Bonilla’s lawyer, Adam J. Kleinfeldt, said Friday.

The suit, filed in January 2011, alleged discrimination against Hispanics by police, and discrimination and harassment against Bonilla after he reported it, Kleinfeldt said.

Mayor Joseph Baruffi said the bulk of the settlement will be paid by the Atlantic County Joint Insurance Fund, and the borough is responsible only for a small percentage as a deductible.

In the lawsuit, Bonilla said he had witnessed officers making racial slurs and targeting minorities, especially Hispanics, by pulling them over more often than whites and issuing excessive tickets.

Borough Solicitor Richard Tonetta said borough officials do not believe there is a discrimination problem in the police force.

He said the borough settled because its insurance carrier believed it was best to do so, given that their main witness, Sherma, 37, of Clayton, Gloucester County, was indicted in March by a Cumberland County grand jury on charges of forgery and criminal attempt for allegedly trying to obtain the painkiller oxycodone with a fraudulent prescription.

Sherma pleaded guilty to similar charges in October 2012 in Atlantic County.

Tonetta also said the borough would have been responsible for paying any part of a judgment over $250,000 if the borough insisted on going to trial and lost.

Bonilla, 46, of Puerto Rican descent, had been a police officer for about a decade when he joined the Buena force in August 2009. He was the only Hispanic officer in the 10-person department, and the only Hispanic officer ever known to be hired there, his lawsuit said.

In June 2010, Bonilla first reported to Sherma that Hispanics in Buena were afraid of the police and felt profiling was occurring in motor vehicle stops, said Kleinfeldt. At the time, Bonilla suggested the police do an outreach program to the Hispanic community, Kleinfeldt said.

But after that conversation, Bonilla “became the subject of racially motivated and retaliatory harassment by Sherma and some of his fellow officers,” said Kleinfeldt.

The only other person the lawsuit named as being discriminatory was acting Sgt. Stacey Steudle, whom Tonetta said has been out on disability since shortly after being involved in the August 2012 apprehension of Eugenio Morales, 43, of Vineland, in which Morales was shot and critically wounded.

Morales was accused of attacking a woman in Vineland with a machete, and he allegedly used a folding box cutter to attack Steudle and Patrolman Eugene Soracco. Morales was indicted for the machete attack in May.

After Bonilla complained of the harassment to Sherma in December 2010, Kleinfeldt said Sherma retaliated by forcing Bonilla to undergo a psychological analysis to determine his fitness for duty; and by removing him from light duty necessary for recuperating from knee and hand injuries — including to his trigger finger — which required surgeries and were sustained in an on-the-job fall in January 2011.

Bonilla, who left the job on workman’s compensation insurance after being taken off light duty, retired from the force in good standing in May 2012, under disability from injuries sustained in the fall, his attorney said. Kleinfeldt said the state Division of Pensions approved his disability.

“My client loved being a cop. What happened to him in Buena was the worst thing that happened to him during his career as a law enforcement officer,” Kleinfeldt said. “I know he is looking forward to the next chapter in his life and spending time with his family.”

Attorneys representing Sherma did not return calls for comment.

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