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About those former NYPD officers who DeSantis praised for coming to Florida? There are issues

Lakeland Police Department exterior
Chasity Maynard
Fresh Take Florida
The Lakeland Police Department building is seen on Nov. 21, 2021.

The officers who left New York and applied at the Lakeland Police Department include a fired security guard and a defendant in a federal police brutality suit.

New details are emerging about the newest dozen police officers lauded by Gov. Ron DeSantis for moving to central Florida from New York City to escape what the governor described as low morale and a lack of support from Democratic politicians there.

The new hires include one previously fired as a Walmart Inc. security guard, one with only three years of experience who demanded more than double his salary and others with mysterious gaps in their resumes.

One said he mistakenly checked a box on his employment application indicating he illegally used marijuana recently — then said he actually never did. Two failed to disclose on their Lakeland applications they had been disciplined over minor matters by the NYPD.

Another worked on the NYPD's notorious anti-crime units. Plainclothes officers in unmarked cars in those units targeted violent crime with car stops and frisks in minority neighborhoods and were involved in controversial shootings of civilians. The police commissioner there disbanded the teams and reassigned those officers last year after high profile incidents.

In one incident, the newly hired officer in Lakeland was among eight NYPD plainclothes officers accused in a federal lawsuit of handcuffing and brutally beating a man in January 2015. The city paid $178,000 to settle the case. The man was left with four broken bones in his face, a dislocated shoulder and cuts and bruises — as the city dropped minor marijuana charges against him six weeks after the beating, the lawsuit said.

Details came from court files, disciplinary reports, records of lawsuit settlement payments and the applications submitted to the Lakeland Police Department for the hires, all from the NYPD. There originally were 13 applicants, but one did not complete the transfer process for what police said was a family issue.

DeSantis, Florida's Republican governor, treated the officers to a warm welcome and a promise of $5,000 hiring bonuses. He held a news conference in early September to demonstrate his support for law enforcement officers — and to jab Democrats in New York City he said weren't supporting police. It wasn’t clear whether anyone in the governor’s office had reviewed or discussed the officers’ employment applications or reviewed their backgrounds.

Gov. DeSantis at the podium, surrounded by law enforcement
Screengrab: The Florida Channel
Fresh Take Florida
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference to support law enforcement on Sept. 9, 2021.

"We're proud in Florida of being a state where people who are in uniform know they’re appreciated,” he said. “They know they have the support, certainly of the governor and the attorney general, but also our Legislature and the people throughout the state of Florida.”

The governor's public criticism of New York City over police morale was another effort to distinguish his policies in Florida against those in cities or states led by progressive politicians, especially on the issue of mandatory COVID-19 vaccines, which are required in New York, California and elsewhere but not Florida. DeSantis tweeted last week that, "We value our first responders in Florida & we will not let heavy-handed mandates force them out of jobs."

The Florida hiring campaign — especially the prospect of $5,000 hiring bonuses that DeSantis has proposed — is also being cited by the police union in New York. It is pushing for higher salaries and better working conditions there, including fighting against what its president called scrutiny and abuse of officers, and to resist vaccine mandates. Florida had paid $1,000 bonuses to law enforcement officers, firefighters and other first responders who worked during the pandemic.

“When I was there, I realized very quickly the job was not as I expected,” said Matthew Spoto, who worked in the NYPD for about two years and was prompted by DeSantis to talk about his experiences in the Bronx at the press conference. On his employment application, Spoto told Lakeland police he wanted to move closer to family in Florida.

Lakeland is between Tampa and Orlando along Interstate 4 in central Florida, in reliably conservative Polk County.

All the newly hired officers in Lakeland said they had never been arrested, much less convicted of any crimes, and never been counseled or disciplined for harassment, bullying or intimidation. On its employment applications, the city did not ask them about civil lawsuits settled out of court and asked only whether any had been judged in civil court over “intentional wrongful conduct.” All said they would be willing to take someone’s life, if necessary, as part of their job as a police officer.

Some of them included intriguing details about their past work or lives. The Lakeland Police Department declined to allow a reporter to interview any of its new recruits from the NYPD.

On his employment application, Teddy Cuello said he was fired as an asset protection associate from Walmart in Islandia, New York, in July 2016 — making $2,000 a month — after nearly two years in that job. He said Walmart told him he violated company policy when he walked into the store's parking lot to meet a police officer and follow a shoplifter who was later arrested. "I could not step foot off the curb to apprehend someone," he wrote in his explanation.

A memorial for officers who died in the line of duty is outside the Lakeland Police Department
Chasity Maynard
Fresh Take Florida
A memorial for officers who died in the line of duty is outside the Lakeland Police Department building on Nov. 21, 2021.

Cuello went to work full time for the NYPD three months later, making $38,400.

NYPD files showed Cuello's supervisors talked to him in February 2018 after officials found a controlled substance — presumably from a case — in his police cruiser. The disciplinary record was included in files the Brooklyn district attorney turned over earlier this year to reveal information it said could show "bad act, bias or credibility concerns of a police witness."

On his Lakeland application, Cuello was prompted to answer yes or no whether he had ever been disciplined “in any way” by a previous employer. He answered “N/A.”

Jamie Smith said he had worked just over three years for the NYPD in the 77th Precinct in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, making $24,576 after earning his bachelor's degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He told Lakeland he wanted to be paid $64,000 — a 160 percent increase in his salary. He listed no other previous employment.

Hector Lopez Jr. also wanted a big raise. He told Lakeland he had worked at the NYPD in the Bronx since July 2015 and was making $58,800. For his new job in Lakeland, he asked for at least $89,000, a 51 percent raise. The work history Lopez provided said he graduated from community college in May 2012 but never indicated what jobs he held, if any, between 2012 and 2015.

Smith and Lopez might be disappointed financially: Lakeland pays officers in training $47,587, spokeswoman Robin Tillett said. Once they become certified to work in Florida, an officer position starts at $53,727, she said.

“You’re in this profession, you’re not necessarily going to be wealthy,” DeSantis said, adding that bonuses Florida previously paid to officers were important symbolic gestures of support.

Mohamed Shaw, who said he worked for the NYPD since July 2017 in Brooklyn, marked "yes" on his application to a question asking whether he had illegally used, experimented or otherwise possessed marijuana or derivatives within the past two years. Tillett, the police spokeswoman, said that was a mistake and Shaw intended to say no. She said that was verified by background investigators and a standard polygraph test.

Shaw was disciplined by the NYPD in November 2018 for interfering with a citizen trying to record police during an incident in Brooklyn, according to the records released by the district attorney in Brooklyn earlier this year. He said on his Lakeland application that he had never been disciplined on the job.

Shaw, who said he previously worked as a school security officer and a UPS delivery driver in New York, said he was leaving the NYPD for a better quality of life. He asked for a $6,000 raise in Lakeland.

Raymundo A. Fermin was one of the most experienced NYPD officers to move to Florida with the group. He said he had been an officer for more than 12 years and worked in the city's anti-crime units as a plainclothes officer targeting gun violence and drug sales until they were shut down. He said he was making $96,000 in New York but would accept $75,000 in Florida.

Those anti-crime units were so controversial in New York that the commissioner disbanded them in June 2020. Tillett said Fermin was never involved in shootings while on the anti-crime unit. She said a civilian complaint review board dismissed the only complaint filed against him.

In the 2015 lawsuit against Fermin and other officers, Vito Amalfitano, now 31, of New York said he was waiting one evening outside an apartment for his child's mother when a construction van full of plainclothes officers, including Fermin, pulled up and chased him. There had been at least three shootings nearby in previous weeks, and the neighborhood was on edge.

Amalfitano, who did not return phone messages over several days, said in the lawsuit the officers caught him outside a second-floor apartment and began punching him. One officer put him in a headlock while others continued to beat him, he said. He said he didn't know they were police officers until they handcuffed him, as they continued hitting him and sprayed him with a chemical irritant. He said his 2-year-old son and her mother witnessed the attack.

Amalfitano said he was falsely arrested that night and accused of discarding two small bags of marijuana recovered nearby, but within six weeks all charges against him were dropped. One officer said Amalfitano had twisted and refused to put his hands behind his back, threw his arms around and pushed and shoved, making it difficult to handcuff him – which Amalfitano disputed.

Fermin also was among a group of at least six NYPD officers sued in federal court in 2016 by four people who accused them of violating their civil rights, according to court records.

In that case, after an armed intruder came into an apartment, one resident called 911. Fermin and the others arrived looking for the gunman, who fled through a bedroom window. The lawsuit said Fermin and the others held the residents for six hours at a police precinct – effectively detaining them and seizing the apartment – while police took hours to apply for a search warrant to look through the apartment.

Lawyers in the case called Fermin and the other officers "unfit, ill-tempered" and said the city failed to train and supervise police in the standards of arrest and seizure without a warrant. None of the four apartment residents were charged with any crime, and the city settled the case in June 2018 for $42,500.

Tillett said Lakeland’s background investigators checked further into the gaps in employment histories on some of the new applications, which she described as only the first step in the hiring process. She said they found no problems to prevent Lakeland from hiring them all.

The officers’ backgrounds were reviewed because DeSantis sought to use their hiring for political purposes. Their applications were obtained and reviewed under Florida's public records law.

There was no evidence the governor played a role directly luring the officers to Florida beyond congratulating them afterward in his news conference. No one in the governor's office exchanged emails with the Lakeland Police Department in the weeks ahead of the announcement, according to its response to another public records request.

The $5,000 signing bonuses proposed by DeSantis are part of a new initiative to recruit and retain law enforcement officers in Florida, but state lawmakers would have to pass the measure during the legislative session that begins in January. If approved, the signing bonuses would be part of the state budget for the next fiscal year.

The governor called it “an open invitation for folks in other states to look to Florida as a place where they can excel professionally and live in a great community.”

Another proposal would let out-of-state officers take Florida’s certification exam for free and would cover the cost of any similar training programs for relocating officers up to $1,000 each.

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at eliseelder@ufl.edu

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