1. Archive

Fired officer had complaints of excessive force

But the department says it was his failure to back up another St. Pete Beach officer that got him fired. The police union is challenging his removal.

Before being fired, police Officer Russell Nuzzo was investigated five times for complaints that he used excessive force in arrests.

But Nuzzo wasn't fired for violence. He was fired for not backing up another officer.

Depending on whom you ask, Nuzzo was one of two things: a rough cop who finally made a big enough mistake to get fired or an aggressive patrol officer who took the initiative, made a lot of arrests and sometimes had to get physical with belligerent drunks before he was unjustly dismissed by St. Pete Beach police supervisors.

Ray Kaminskas, the beach town's new police chief, had no qualms about firing Nuzzo on July 30.

A review board found that Nuzzo was dispatched to a Holiday Inn early May 15, but he stayed behind in the police station even as another officer went to the hotel, issued trespass warnings to two people and evicted a dozen youths from a room where they'd reportedly been drinking. The Police Department says Nuzzo never asked if the officer needed help and never told anyone he wasn't going to the scene.

"To me, that's gross negligence and that's well outside the performance level we set for our officers," Kaminskas said. "When you couple that with his spotty record, it definitely warranted termination."

Nuzzo could not be reached for comment, but the Fraternal Order of Police is contesting his firing, saying the punishment is too harsh.

"He's a good cop. Quite frankly, this is probably just another case of small-town politics," said Pinellas County FOP President Tim Ingold. "I'm confident that the issue will be decided by an independent authority and Officer Nuzzo will be back to work."

The incident that got Nuzzo fired came on the heels of an excessive-force complaint. Nuzzo was suspended for 20 days in June after supervisors found that he punched a handcuffed man.

Shawn Rodriquez, 25, of St. Pete Beach was being arrested on a warrant April 30 when Nuzzo hit him in the face twice, reports said.

"They beat the crap out of me," Rodriquez told the Times. "I was in handcuffs all this time."

But Nuzzo and other officers said Rodriquez was drunk and violent as they put him in a police cruiser. They say he kicked a K-9 officer. Nuzzo said he punched Rodriquez as a reaction when the man tried to head-butt and bite him.

The FOP is contesting Nuzzo's punishment in that case as well.

"He did not do a thing wrong," Ingold said. "He followed not only state law but also department guidelines."

Nuzzo, who became a St. Pete Beach officer in 1991, was investigated five times for excessive-force complaints. Three times, supervisors found no proof for the allegations. Nuzzo was disciplined twice _ this June and also in 1994, when he punched a handcuffed burglary suspect.

Nuzzo said that suspect was violent and spit in his face. He resigned in January 1995, then changed his mind on what was to be his last night on duty.

A separate 1994 case was never investigated by internal affairs. Former beach resident Marc Kelly, 44, is suing Nuzzo and the city of St. Pete Beach, saying that Nuzzo bashed his head into a floor several times while arresting him for no valid reason.

"I thought the man was going to kill me that night, he beat me so badly," Kelly said. "The guy was a loose cannon."

The Police Department has maintained that the officer did nothing wrong that night.

Before being fired, Nuzzo regularly earned positive work evaluations. He was praised as an active patrol officer who showed initiative, constantly looking for drugs and crime by doing traffic stops, foot patrols and searches.

He sometimes led the Police Department in arrests. Sergeants praised his positive attitude and said he had the potential to be promoted.

"During stressful situations and dealing with hostile subjects," a supervisor wrote this year, "Officer Nuzzo handles himself well."

_ Times staff writer Christina Headrick contributed to this report.