Hillsborough County Code Enforcement officer Lawrence Hoffman, a retired New York City police detective, said in some ways the two jobs are similar. In both, he has had to deal with angry people.
Over 20 years with the NYPD and in this job, too, he knows that his mouth is his greatest weapon, as he puts it.
“I have to be able to defuse. I have to be able to speak to people and keep situations calm.’’
He frequently talks to Hillsborough County code violators who don’t understand how the county can tell them what to do. And he also talks to a lot of people who are cooperative. They apologize for the problem, saying things just got out of hand.
“I had an occasion where a wife told on her husband,’’ said Hoffman. He went out to inspect their home, and she found a moment to talk with Hoffman privately. “She said, ‘Listen, I’m the one that called. I can’t get my husband to get his butt off the couch.’ “
Hoffman, a fit-looking man of 59 with close-cropped gray hair, has seen and done a lot. As a narcotics officer he once was in a shootout in Brooklyn. But the worst experience, he said, was being on a search detail in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center’s twin towers. "I recovered a fireman, digging one day,'' he said. "I was there the next two weeks, doing that kind of stuff and searching for the black box. It was terrible.''
And as a sideline for much of his career, he worked as a stuntman and actor. He appeared as a police officer in the film The Taking of Pelham One Two Three; as a New Jersey State Trooper who had to tackle a suspect in the short-lived television show, Life On Mars, with Harvey Keitel; and as a detective who talks a kid out of suicide in Break the Stage, a movie he helped produce, which he said will be released this month on Pay Per View television. And he wrote about his NYPD experiences in a 2015 book, Turning Blue: A Life Beneath the Shield.
He still steps back about 10 feet after knocking on a door. He wants to be ready to react to an attack dog or something worse. People see the badge on his polo shirt and the shield on his belt and may think he’s the police.
“For all I know, they could have just murdered their family inside, and I’m showing up to tell them that their grass is too high.’’
On a recent day in east Hillsborough County, the problem wasn’t just high grass. Half the front of a single-wide mobile home was missing, exposing an interior of falling paneling, overturned cabinets, holes in the ceiling and floor, pieces of wood and chunks of debris covering nearly every inch of the floor. Mattresses, shoes and clothes on the bedroom floors reveal that people have been sleeping in there.
Hoffman always calls out, just in case he isn’t alone. “Code Enforcement. Everybody okay?”
The homeowner had died a few years before, and the house was left to vandals and decay. The county has condemned it and Hoffman said the trailer and the piles of furniture in the yard will be cleared and the grounds mowed.
“Yeah, can’t get much worse than this.’’
Actually, it can. He recalls the time he and a fellow code officer walked up to the home of a man known to have weapons, along with a low regard for code enforcement.
“We went up to the door. I noticed flies inside of the window. I said, ‘Jim, that’s not a good sign.’ ‘’
Looking through a partially open front window, “I could see his leg bent up, and he was in the kitchen behind some debris. And obviously the smell takes over.'' His pets had died, too, apparently from starvation.
The most common violations code officers cite are overgrown lawns and cars on the property without tags. Grass is in violation when it’s 10 inches high or more within 200 feet of a house or a road. Cars without tags must be in a garage or other enclosure.
Hoffman covers the rural area around Plant City, where people have a lot of property, and some people seem to collect old, junk cars that are out in the open.
"Their answer to me is, ‘Well, this is the country.’’ He tells them that "doesn’t give you permission to just throw junk out there.’’
The county code enforcement office gets about 20,000 new cases a year and goes out on about 35,000 inspections of ongoing cases, said Ron Spiller, code enforcement director. He has 24 officers handling that caseload, most of them retired law enforcement officers. Spiller, formerly with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, said that’s his preferred hiring model.
“If you’ve made a career in law enforcement, you learned to talk to people," Spiller said. "You know how to document. You know how to testify. ''
In the six years he’s been director, Spiller said, only two of his code enforcement officers were physically attacked; they weren’t hurt. One case resulted in an arrest; the other was turned over to the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office, which did not prosecute.
They do get threats, mainly from people who believe the government has no right to tell them what to do with their property. Those people get a follow-up visit from a sheriff’s deputy.
On days off, when Hoffman isn’t citing people for code violations, he is often working on repairs to bring homes up to code. He does it for disabled veterans through a charity called Operation Code Vet. Their gratitude motivates him.
And despite the angry responses he gets from time to time, he gets a lot of gratitude for doing his job, too.
"I find people are very appreciative of some of the things you do, and it’s rewarding.''