On October 22, 2013, the Borough of Buena (Atlantic County) agreed to pay $250,000 to a Hispanic police officer who claimed that officials in the Buena police department harassed and created a hostile work environment for him.

In his suit, Ronald Bonilla, who was hired as a patrol officer in 2009, said that it was the policy of the Buena Police Department to target Hispanic drivers.  Bonilla claimed that he was the only Hispanic in an otherwise completely Caucasian department.

He claimed that before becoming his direct superior officer, Sergeant Stacey Steudle told him that “she is not a big ticket writer, but if I need to keep my stats up I will find a Mexican and write him ten tickets.”  (In December 2009, Steudle settled her own whistleblower lawsuit against the Borough for $375,000–click here.) 

Bonilla claimed that the police management, including Chief David P. Sherma, had “a discriminatory bias against minorities.”  When Bonilla complained to Sherma about the racial profiling, Bonilla said that he became the target of mistreatment and harassment by the other officers.  Specifically, he claims that he was not backed up by other officers, was falsely charged with not backing up other officers and that Steudle would repeatedly belittle him and cover up a Puerto Rican flag that he had put on his locker.  When he was performing desk duty, he was harassed by a picture of “a dog scooping up a pile of dog waste” and la bled “our new employee” that was placed directly in front of his desk.

The case is captioned Bonilla v. Buena, Federal Case No. 1:11-cv-05412 and Bonilla’s attorney was Adam J. Kleinfeldt of Newark.  Case documents are on-line here.

None of Bonilla’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $250,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Buena or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Buena or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Bonilla $250,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants’ decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial–it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project. Please send all comments to [email protected]