TAMPA — Lawrence Hoffman was a New York City police officer for 20 years before moving to Florida and taking a job as a code enforcement officer for Hillsborough County.
He says both jobs require the ability to defuse confrontational situations and calm angry people.
His current assignment in Hillsborough is inspecting properties that are under foreclosure, checking to see if they are maintained properly and whether squatters have moved in.
He is also an author, and wrote “Turning Blue: A Life Beneath the Shield,” about his 20 years as an officer and detective dealing with the harsh realities of life in New York City, including working the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. His book came out in 2016.
And he’s a veteran background actor who had a lot of non-speaking roles on “Law & Order.”
Hoffman, 62, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about code enforcement and 9/11.
Talk about how you approach the front doors of code violators.
I guess (it’s) through my training as a New York City police officer, but whenever I pull up to a location that I’m going to inspect, or just the neighborhood in general, I’ll stop and I won’t get out of my car right away. I just look around, trying to get a feel for the neighborhood and look at the house, because sometimes the house will tell a story to you. …
I remember one incident. As I was walking up to the house, there was a Styrofoam insert to a box … in the shape of a gun. So I knew that whoever was at this house had a firearm because the Styrofoam fitting for the gun was laying right there on the front lawn. Little things like that you can pick up on that can kind of manage the way you’re going to deal with people.
We’re not armed in any way. We don’t have guns. … My greatest tool is my mouth. You have to be able to talk to people. ... I try to present myself in my appearance, the way I dress, the way I carry myself. I want to show them that I’m an official, I’m serious about what I do, and I command respect. But I also want to give the people I’m dealing with respect as well.
I don’t always know what I’m walking into so I always have to be prepared. ... I’ll stand back so I’m not right in their face when they open up the door, because that’s also a confrontational thing. ... I give them their personal space; I have mine. And it gives me time to react if a dog comes flying out the door.
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Do you encounter a lot of angry people wondering why you’re bothering them?
Yes, we do. … The attitude (is) this is my property, you can’t tell me what to do on my property. I say, well, I can because there are ordinances that restrict certain activity. And people feel that that’s not just.
How do you calm an angry homeowner?
I try to use deflection. … (A) guy came out and he was ready to do battle. I kind of talk to him, I say, “Hey, how are you doing? … My name’s Larry. What’s your name?” I try to make it a more friendly approach (instead of), “I’m Officer Hoffman from Hillsborough County.”
And I noticed he had a Yankees shirt on. So I talk to him, he’s still looking angry, and I say, “Ah, Yankees, love the Yankees. They won last night and it was great.” And he looked at his shirt and said, “Oh, yeah, yeah, Yankees are doing great.” … And I could see his body relax. Now I knew I had a little leeway. I said I just want to let you know, educate you on what you can and can’t do. And (I) give him that respect. And he says, “Yeah, I understand, you’re just doing your job. I understand. I’ll take care of it.”
What are the worst things you deal with?
I deal strictly with foreclosure. … I deal a lot with vagrants. Vagrants are a huge issue for me because there are people who are professional squatters. They’ll break into the house and they’ll change the locks and they’ll just take over a property and then they know they can live there free until the house gets sold or whatever. A lot of times they’re not the smartest people that do that. They don’t take care of properties so they attract attention to themselves.
I have issues right now on a house where they’re stealing the electric meters from somewhere else and they plug them into their house. In the middle of the night they’re stealing water from the neighbors. They’re attracting all kinds of not so nice people coming to the house. … They just have disregard for the neighborhood and they attract so much attention, the neighborhood is in an uproar about them and you can’t get them out of there (immediately) legally, so we have to go through this eviction process. It’s one of the worst things that I deal with. ...
I’m in uniform, it’s got a shield on it. Mine says “code enforcement,” but somebody could have just murdered their family inside and I’m there to tell them that their grass is too high. They don’t know the difference between a code officer and a sheriff’s badge. They’re not going to care at this point.
You’re also a member of the Screen Actors Guild. Can you talk about some of the roles you had?
I was a stuntman in the movie “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3″ with Denzel Washington and John Travolta. In the end of the movie where John Travolta gets shot by Denzel Washington, and Denzel is waving to cops that are coming over the Manhattan Bridge. ... I’m one of the five cops coming over that bridge.
(In a TV) show called “Life on Mars’' with Harvey Keitel, I played a New Jersey state trooper who was searching for somebody. A guy came out of the woods and (was) yelling some crazy words and we had to tackle him and put handcuffs on him.
How many non-speaking parts did you have on ‘Law & Order?’
I would say at least 30 times. … I played court officers, I was in the jury box, I was a horse trainer … a detective, uniformed cop.
You worked the site of 9/11 after the attack. What experiences can you share from that?
They had a crew that dug by hand. ... As the buckets filled they just passed them down till they got to the bottom and they would empty them, and the buckets would go back up for a refill. … The guy in front of me takes the bucket and hands it to me and he goes, “Human parts.” And I look in it. There’s a dress shoe with the foot still in it. And I said “human parts” and I sent the message on down the line.
I just did that for two weeks or so… and found a fireman and a woman underneath him. … Me and two firemen (are) digging with our hands… and as we were doing it, all of a sudden you see fingers and hands, just rising out of the debris. ….
A female hand comes out. (The firefighter) was resting on top of the female. … It looked to me like he used his body to shield her when it started to come down, like he was still trying to protect her. And I see wedding rings on their hands, so instantly my mind went to their families, wondering where their loved ones are, if they’re OK, and I’m literally unearthing them right now.
The rings really kind of hit me hard.