HARTLETON — The police chief of a community in Union County is now the subject of an investigation all because of what has been happening during some traffic stops.
Authorities believe the chief offers violators a choice: either pay the fine or get out of a ticket by making a donation to a fund that helps maintain a park.
Investigators are looking into Hartleton Police Chief Donald Zerbe and the way his department has been handling traffic tickets.
According to a search warrant, Zerbe has been giving drivers a way out of the ticket that helps a community playground.
Hartleton is in the west end of Union County along Route 45 and has a relatively small police department made up of four part-time officers and a chief.
Donald Zerbe, who also goes by Larry, has been chief since 1980 and is now under investigation for alleged theft by extortion.
In December, state police searched Zerbe’s home near Hartleton, which doubles as a department office, and took traffic citations between 2008 and 2012.
According to a search warrant, at least two people told investigators that Hartleton Police gave them an option after being pulled over for speeding: Either pay the fine or call Chief Zerbe.
Zerbe allegedly would tell them if they sent a check for $150 to the “Hartleton playground fund,” the ticket would go away.
Zerbe would not speak with us on camera but said he was within his rights to do that, chalking it up to what prosecutors do when they make a plea deal with a defendant.
It’s not clear from court papers how many traffic citations along Route 45 in Hartleton ended up as donations to the Hartleton playground. According to Chief Zerbe, he’s not sure how many were paid as donations rather than traffic citations, but said all the money ended up going to the playground.
“I think overall he was just trying to do a good thing and got himself in something like I said he shouldn’t have been doing. He’s a good man, I’ve known him for years. I think he was just trying to do a good thing,” said business owner Bill Kerstetter.
Some folks in Hartleton spoke for Zerbe, saying he goes above and beyond the call of duty for the community.
Zerbe said he’s ready to go to jail if he has to, and that is a real possibility, as investigators said charges against the Hartleton police chief are likely to be filed.
Chief Zerbe is still on the police force in Hartleton.
The borough’s mayor said until the state proves there’s been a violation, he stands behind the department’s practices.
Prosecutors say at no time is it OK for police to offer a way out of a ticket in return for a donation.