South Florida

Good cop/bad cop: the rapid rise of Lt. Aguiar

Jesus Aguiar rose in South Miami to the rank of lieutenant in 10 years, in a department where other officers took nearly twice as long to reach the same rank.
Jesus Aguiar rose in South Miami to the rank of lieutenant in 10 years, in a department where other officers took nearly twice as long to reach the same rank. South Miami Police Department

Lt. Jesus Aguiar has shoved his hand down the slacks of a female subordinate and allegedly manhandled two women in a bar while “drunk and slurry,” then repeatedly slugged a bystander who came to their aid, according to internal files at the South Miami Police Department.

The boss of an estranged girlfriend said he showed up at their office in uniform, handcuffed the girlfriend and pepper-sprayed her. He has admitted to using his police computer to look up the address of a woman he met at a bar, whose front door he then pounded on at 3 in the morning, startling her mother-in-law. He allegedly passed around a digital photo of his penis while socializing with colleagues in a bar.

After one episode, a former Miami police chief, hired to consult with the city of South Miami, recommended that he be fired or at least demoted. Neither occurred.

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At the same time, he received promotions and dozens of department awards, rising rapidly in a department of 52 sworn officers. The South Miami cop became a sergeant four years after joining the force and a lieutenant in 10, in a department where officers typically take 15 to 20 years to reach the same rank. His superiors wrote glowing reviews in his annual evaluations.

They acknowledged Aguiar’s struggles with maturity but defended his record by pointing to his history of “proactive” policing. Aguiar, who has won dozens of commendations in his time at the department, personified eagerness and productivity, they said, joining the honor guard, becoming a union representative and currently serving on the pension board.

They assigned him to oversee the Explorers, a program for young people who aspire to become police officers.

The majority of serious complaints in Aguiar’s file involve incidents when he was off duty, from socializing at bars with his coworkers to working an off-duty bouncer shift. They also disproportionately involve women.

“He knew better, and he did it anyway,” said Kenneth Harms, the former Miami police chief turned special investigator for hire who recommended to the city manager that Aguiar be fired.

THE EXPLORER

Aguiar showed interest in police work as early as high school. He enrolled in the Miami Police Explorer Program, which trains young students in basic law enforcement tactics and shows the day-to-day work of police officers. Aguiar, who did not respond to requests for comment, said in an undated email in his file: “Unlike many, which simply went through the program without any gain, I developed one of the most valuable qualities I possess today, my love and passion for law enforcement.”

But Aguiar struggled elsewhere. According to his South Miami application, he did not graduate from Miami Senior High but earned a GED. He wrote that he turned down a scholarship to Miami Dade College to attend the police academy, paying out of pocket. The same month he earned his certificate, June 2002, Aguiar was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. Aguiar was sent to pretrial diversion and the charge was dropped.

The repercussions of the felony arrest lingered. Aguiar worked on and off as a security officer for the next two years, including a seven-month stint as an airport screener. When he applied to nine police departments in 2004, three denied his application “due to background.” Only one, South Miami, gave him a conditional offer that October.

He knew better, and he did it anyway.

Kenneth Harms, former Miami police chief turned special investigator for hire

Pat Franklin, a retired police detective who specializes in law enforcement internal affairs investigations and who reviewed his file, said that first arrest should have been a red flag.

“It is not prudent to hire people who have a criminal history — it doesn’t have to be a conviction,” he said. “A misdemeanor like simple possession, that’s not unusual. But carrying a concealed firearm is a felony.”

Records show Aguiar’s first few years in the department were rocky. Early reviews described him as average, if eager — on a scale of 1 to 8, his weekly evaluations were dotted with 4s and 5s. “Not aggressive when handling stressful situations,” one said.

Aguiar’s file also started collecting complaints: On March 28, 2005, four months after he started working, Tony Ramos contacted the agency alleging that Aguiar had showed up at his office and handcuffed and pepper-sprayed his secretary, the officer’s estranged girlfriend. Ramos said he was intimidated by Aguiar, who was wearing his police uniform and carrying a gun.

Ramos declined to speak to The Herald, saying the event “was not for public consumption.”

Aguiar, confronted by superiors, admitted to visiting Ramos’ office but denied attacking the secretary. The complaint was closed.

The following year, Aguiar used his police computer to look up a woman’s address and follow her home. Aguiar was working an off-duty security shift at Martini Bar in the Shops at Sunset Place that night in December 2006 when he encountered a woman at the bar and suggested hooking up. According to a complaint her husband filed the following day, Aguiar pulled her aside and asked if she and her husband were swingers.

When she left the bar with her husband, Aguiar ran her information in his police computer and went to the home — outside South Miami — in his police vehicle later that night. It was 3 a.m. when he knocked. When her mother-in-law answered the door, he said he had the wrong house and ran away.

Interviewed by investigators, Aguiar admitted to looking up her husband’s car tag but said it was only to verify an address the woman had already given him. He said he was dropping by only to ensure the woman’s safety because her husband had “looked angry.”

The department sustained complaints of improper conduct, taking police action in personal matters and violating computer policy.

“He’s only on the job two years and he’s accessing the database,” said Franklin, who called it a fireable offense. “You can lose your certificate and your access to the database if you’re using it for other than legitimate business purposes.”

The department gave him a two-day suspension, then allowed him to deduct it from vacation time. And he was barred from working outside the department for three months.

PLENTY OF PRAISE

As Aguiar’s pattern of questionable behavior grew, so did his pile of commendations.

On the job, Aguiar drew attention for his dedication to his appearance and his work. He was named Officer of the Month five times during the rest of 2007, then named Officer of the Year that December.

By 2008 many of the concerns in Aguiar’s earlier evaluations had evaporated. He was regularly praised for his productivity. His “professional demeanor” was rated a perfect 8.

Over the years he also racked up a half-dozen “courtesy complaints,” but those are to be expected, said Chief Rene Landa, “when you’ve got a producer like that who gives 150 percent.”

In April 2008, he was promoted to sergeant. At the end of the year, Aguiar was given the Chief’s Award, in part for apprehending twin brothers trying to burglarize a car. The award noted Aguiar’s success despite “being in great personal danger during the confrontation” when one of the brothers tried to hit Aguiar with his car. Aguiar sustained scratches to his left wrist.

OVERT ADVANCES

In early 2009, Christine Skalski, a communications officer in the department, went out to a bar with her co-workers, including Aguiar. At the bar, Aguiar, unprompted, showed the group a picture of his penis on his phone, according to a sexual harassment complaint she filed later. Another communications officer expressed dismay: “I don’t want to see that,” Skalski recalled her saying. The behavior was not uncommon from Aguiar, Skalski told investigators, adding he was known for his pursuit of other dispatchers and female patrons at bars.

During the next year, Skalski further alleged, Aguiar made several more overt sexual advances, including kissing her and putting his hand down her pants after they were pushed into a closet during a social outing with others.

“It’s always fun to joke around, but it’s a bad idea when they’re your sergeant,” she recalled in an interview with investigators.

Aguiar kept at it, Skalski said, calling her early in the morning with slurred speech and sending her a text suggesting they get beers. Skalski testified that his behavior was “aggressive,” but that she felt confident she could brush it off.

That changed in August, when Skalski told Aguiar during a dispatcher call that he could not release a minor’s name or date of birth to a mall security officer. Aguiar, she remembered, started shouting at her in front of the other dispatchers: “How dare I tell him what to do, that he is the sergeant and he gets to run the shift however he wants… . He was shouting so much I apologized quickly.”

After that conversation, according to Skalski, Aguiar began to directly harass and intimidate her in the office, suggesting that he should write her annual review and emailing negative comments about her performance to her supervisor. Skalski asked her supervisor, Lisa Corbin, to try and resolve the situation. But he kept asking her out and badgering her about her work performance when she refused.

In early 2010, Skalski filed her sexual harassment complaint. Skalski, who has since left the department, declined to comment but said she stood by her testimony.

Harms, the outside investigator assigned to the case, recommended termination in an email to the city manager, “given the premeditated nature of this employee's conduct, as well as its outrageous extremes.” In a separate memo, Harms described a number of alternate punishments, including a demotion and removal from the South Miami Explorers.

Aguiar wrote in a public Facebook post at that time that he was “waiting for my fate.”

He was handed a 20-day unpaid suspension, required to take sexual harassment and sensitivity training and switched to the midnight shift for a time. That June, Aguiar wrote a mandatory apology: “I apologize if I engaged in any conduct that you found to be inappropriate or unprofessional or if I used poor judgment in any of my dealings with you. It will not happen again.”

Aguiar’s star continued to rise. The year after the complaint was sustained, Aguiar was promoted to administrative sergeant, effectively placing him a notch above the sergeants he had worked alongside for just two years. 

FIGHT IN A BAR

The night of Aug. 9, 2012, Aguiar, off-duty and in plain clothes, allegedly tried to detain two women at a bar for throwing a drink at a member of his party, in a dispute over certain outdoor seating. According to a complaint filed against him, Aguiar grabbed one woman by the arm and pulled another by the hair, ordering them not to leave. He called South Miami police. All the while, according to the complaint, he did not identify himself as a police officer.

When a bystander, Martin Lopez, tried to intervene, he alleged Aguiar punched him to the floor and kept swinging, hitting him repeatedly. Aguiar said the attack was a case of self-defense because Lopez came at him with a beer bottle. Multiple witnesses, when asked, denied seeing Lopez with a beer bottle.

His work ethic is exemplary. He display[s] a maturity beyond his years at work.

Maj. Louis Fata, in a performance review

After the police arrived, Aguiar stood outside with his uniformed colleagues and advised Lopez, who required stitches in his lip, not to make a big deal of the incident, Lopez recalled in his complaint. The case was sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which cited a lack of evidence and did not press charges. That made it an administrative matter for the department. In April 2014, while the internal affairs case was still pending, Aguiar was promoted to lieutenant.

As the investigation drew to a close in August, Assistant Chief Louis Fata took Aguiar to task in a memo dated Aug. 11, 2014, titled “Performance Issues.”

“There have been recurrent questions brought about concerning your maturity and decision-making capabilities when off duty,” he wrote. “I strongly urge you to look at past events, look for common denominators, and make decisions that will keep these recurrent problems from developing in the future.”

A week later, Fata wrote a much longer memo to the administrative panel weighing Aguiar’s fate, citing inconsistencies he alleged were in the internal affairs report. The panel voted to dismiss the charges.

In a recent interview, Chief Landa, formerly of the Miami Police Department, referred to the two women as being “drunk” but softened that assessment when a reporter asked why they were allowed by his officers to drive home. Lopez, in his interview with internal affairs, said it was Aguiar who was “drunk and slurry.”

‘RARE’ DEDICATION

Dismissing repeated patterns of misbehavior is not uncommon, especially in smaller departments, said Franklin. “Their opportunity to fire this guy has come and gone more than once and they haven’t done it,” he said.

Supervisors acknowledged Aguiar has a history of worrisome behavior, but said there is another side to Aguiar that is impressive.

“What he brings to the table administratively, what he brings to the table as a police supervisor and leader, he knows the job very, very well,” Landa said, calling Aguiar’s attitude and dedication “rare for a man of his age and era.”

“With additional maturity,” said Fata, who came over from the Miami Beach Police Department, Aguiar might even find his way to South Miami’s top job one day.

Both men said Aguiar’s rapid rise in the department may have spurred jealousy among colleagues, causing someone to maliciously call attention to his past problems.

In January, Landa shuffled Aguiar to head the department’s Criminal Investigations Unit, shortly after he received a pay upgrade — to $74,130 — for his longevity. Aguiar’s most recent annual evaluations showed perfect scores in almost all categories.

“His work ethic is exemplary,” Fata wrote in an evaluation this year. “He display[s] a maturity beyond his years at work.”

Landa, in his 2014 review, wrote, “I have had the honor of being in the law enforcement field for over 34 years, and Sgt. Jesus Aguiar is one of the most competent and dedicated professional police officer [sic] that I have had the honor and pleasure to work with.”

Since then, Aguiar has again come to the attention of internal affairs after an episode at a Cheesecake Factory in which his fiancee’s cousin — a convicted felon — started a disturbance by allegedly attacking another patron. Aguiar was there as the disturbance started, but left before Miami-Dade police arrived to arrest and charge the cousin with battery. Aguiar’s girlfriend, who is not a cop, allegedly flashed a badge at mall security officers before police arrived, saying the situation was under control and there was no need for law enforcement.

A complaint was filed but the victim refused to testify.

Fata, who talked to Aguiar about the incident, could not recall in an interview if he asked whether the badge the girlfriend brandished was Aguiar’s.

Aguiar, 32, has made no secret of his desire to wear the chief of police’s badge, listing it as his career goal in his two most recent evaluations. In an email in his personnel file, Aguiar treated the possibility as an eventuality: “When I finally do reach the top, I will look down and reach below me to help the next person up and will hopefully leave a legacy for many in the future to emulate.”

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