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Allentown, officer settle free speech suit;
City to pay $167,000 in back pay, lawyers' fees, and reinstate him.By Elliot Grossman Of The Morning Call

Allentown will reinstate a police officer and pay $167,000 to settle his free speech lawsuit against the city.

Patrolman Michael Popovich alleged that the city fired him because he had publicly criticized top police officials.

Under the guidance of U.S. Magistrate Judge Arnold Rapoport, lawyers put the finishing touches on the settlement Wednesday at the U.S. Courthouse in Allentown.

"I'm just happy that it's all over with," Popovich said afterward. "I'm glad to be back on the force."

In 2003, Popovich sued the city and six police administrators, including former Chief Stephen Kuhn, alleging that they retaliated against him after he criticized the police administration.

That year, Popovich participated in a police union march protesting the actions of the city administration. The union had accused Kuhn and Mayor Roy Afflerbach of making insulting remarks about officers related to a proposal to toughen the drug-testing policy for police.

His civil rights lawsuit noted that The Morning Call published a front-page photo of Popovich in that march, holding a sign that said, "APOLOGIZE CHIEF!!!"

The suit alleged that the top police officials had a pattern and practice of retaliating against officers and members of the public who questioned the department's policies and practices.

According to the suit, because of Popovich's outspokenness, police administrators later overreacted to the way he handled the arrest of a burglary suspect. Accused of dragging the handcuffed suspect down a hill, he contended the suspect slipped on wet grass.

Police supervisors arrested Popovich without probable cause and questioned him for two hours about the way he handled the burglary suspect's arrest, according to his suit. But Lehigh County District Attorney James Martin concluded there was no basis to charge Popovich with a crime.

Police supervisors moved ahead with disciplinary proceedings, accusing him of using excessive force, falsifying incident reports and encouraging other officers to falsify incident reports. Kuhn suspended Popovich without pay and City Council fired him.

Two months ago, the city put Popovich back on the payroll after an arbitrator ruled that the firing was "grossly disproportionate to the offense."

The settlement requires the city to revise its records to reflect a 60-day suspension for Popovich's misconduct. He is scheduled to be back on patrol Wednesday.

"I don't foresee any problems," Popovich said about returning to work. "I think it'll be an easy transition."

The settlement includes $61,000 for back pay, $28,000 for lost overtime pay and $62,000 in attorneys' fees.

In the last two years, Popovich worked part time for North Catasauqua police, Stroud Regional police and Defense Department police at the Tobyhanna Army Depot. He joined the Allentown police in 2000.

According to city solicitor Robert Brown, Mayor Roy Afflerbach approved the settlement, which does not require City Council approval. Afflerbach could not be reached for comment, nor could Police Chief Joseph Blackburn.

The settlement does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by the city, according to the written agreement. In prior court papers, the city contended that there was insufficient evidence to prove that administrators retaliated against Popovich.

But lawyer Jordan Yeager of Doylestown called the administrators' conduct "atrocious" because they punished him for exercising his constitutional right to criticize the government.

"The rights that are enshrined in the First Amendment are at the core of what our country is about," Yeager said.

A related case is pending in federal court. The burglary suspect has sued Popovich and the city, alleging excessive force.

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