Outspoken police union rep Rick Fernandez, long a thorn in the side of Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, has been fired by the mayor for his role in a fatal shooting in 2013.
The mayor, in a letter last week citing a lengthy internal investigation, wrote that Fernandez had put officers and the public in “harm’s way” when he decided to enter a suspect’s home instead of waiting for the city’s SWAT team.
Fernandez called his firing politics — and nothing else. A second cop involved, for one thing, wound up with a promotion.
“It’s retaliation against me for being a pain in the a--,” said Fernandez, a veteran cop and elected police union representative who has fought Hernandez on issues including collective bargaining and the city’s $100 million water treatment plant.
Hernandez, who was out of town last week, did not return calls to his cellphone or messages left at his office. Police Chief Sergio Velazquez, who recommended the firing of Fernandez to the mayor, refused to comment. His spokesman relayed a brief response: “The Hialeah Police Department declines to make any statements or comments regarding Lt. Ricardo Fernandez.”
The firing of a police union leader is unusual in many aspects. It’s rare that a mayor — even a strong mayor like Hernandez, who is charged with running a city’s department and overseeing personnel — comments on the firing of an officer. And it’s even more rare that an officer is let go before the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office, which reviews all police shootings, finishes its own investigation.
But in a hand-delivered termination letter, Hernandez, a former cop himself, made it clear that he blamed the shooting death of Arturo Guzman on Fernandez, saying he should have waited for the special detail his fellow officer called that day before entering the home.
“Lt. Fernandez, your instincts led to an unnecessary police-involved shooting that resulted in the death of a civilian of the city of Hialeah,” the mayor wrote. “In addition to the loss of life suffered on your reckless instincts, several subordinate officers were also put in harm’s way during this incident.”
Fernandez — a lieutenant with 22 years experience who has worked in SWAT and gang units and served in the city’s Honor Guard — has the substantial backing of the Police Benevolent Association and its equally outspoken President John Rivera.
The union has vowed an appeal, with Rivera warning that what he called a vengeful move to fire Fernandez would “backfire.” Rivera also wondered why Fernandez was immediately demoted after the shooting while Sgt. Antonio Luis, who fired his weapon first that day, was promoted to lieutenant earlier this month.
“Two guys shot. The one who did not see a gun gets promoted. The guy who did see the gun gets demoted,” Rivera said. “That only happens in fourth-world countries.”
According to witness testimony given to Hialeah police, the fatal encounter occurred late in the evening of Oct. 27, 2013, when Guzman, his wife, Laura Guzman, and two friends were drinking beer in the backyard of a home near East Eighth Lane and 45th Street. Guzman pulled a gun and threatened to shoot his wife. Then he fired a bullet into the ground, went into the home and demanded that his wife go to bed with him, according to the Hialeah police internal report.
When Guzman ordered his wife to leave the home at gunpoint, she grabbed her cellphone and called 911. The internal review said officers Fernandez and Luis found Laura Guzman on the street a few blocks from the home, spoke with her, then made their way to the house. The officers then spotted Guzman inside and ordered him to give himself up. Instead, he locked himself in a bedroom.
Luis called for SWAT. But Fernandez, the report states, wanted to continue on and check to see if anyone else was in danger.
They spotted Guzman barricaded inside a closet. After failing to persuade him to come out, both officers fired at Guzman when he pointed an unknown object at them. The report found that Luis fired first. A further search by police turned up a gun and a suicide note from Guzman.
“Best I can figure, it was suicide by cop,” Fernandez said. “He stands up, sits down, says F you, you’re going to have to kill me. His right arm comes up. I see a gun. The sergeant and I engage. A few days later I’m transferred to communications.”
In September 2014, the PBA filed a grievance with the American Arbitration Association, arguing that Fernandez should be permitted to use his seniority to choose his shift and days off while serving in communications. He won that grievance.
Also in 2014 the PBA filed a grievance with the Public Relations Employee Committee, demanding he be reinstated to his old post because the job transfer was illegal and retaliatory.
That decision is still pending.