A veteran police sergeant acted inappropriately when he asked Commissioner Michele Lazarow about giving him a kiss at the polls during early voting last November, an internal investigation has found.
Lazarow, who ended up winning the Nov. 3 election, wasn’t laughing.
Within hours of the Nov. 1 incident, Lazarow fired off an email to the city manager and Police Chief Sonia Quinones demanding an investigation.
“I’ve put up with all sorts of inappropriate, unprofessional and downright harassing behavior over the last two weeks,” Lazarow said at the time. “Sexual harassment is where I draw the line.”
Now that the investigation is over and went in her favor, Lazarow says she feels vindicated.
“I’m grateful to the Hallandale Beach police leadership for holding Sgt. Roccisano accountable for his unacceptable behavior,” Lazarow said. “This will send a message that it is wrong for any officer to harass a city commissioner or anyone, regardless of who it is.”
Because the Internal Affairs case was sustained, it will go on Roccisano’s record.
Roccisano, 47, joined the department in January 2008.
“This is the first blemish on his record,” said Teri Gutman Valdes, a union attorney who represented Roccisano during the Internal Affairs investigation.
A written statement will go in his file, Valdes said.
During the investigation, Roccisano and his attorney made it clear they felt the department should not have opened an Internal Affairs case, citing the fact that he was off duty and not in uniform at the time of the incident.
Roccisano can’t appeal the finding but has written a letter of rebuttal to the chief, Valdes said.
In the letter, he argued he was exercising his First Amendment right to free speech and political activity.
“Taking disciplinary action as the result of my exercising these rights is a direct violation of my constitutional rights by the city of Hallandale Beach,” he wrote.
Hallandale Beach, a beachside town known for its raucous politics, by all accounts had a particularly nasty election season last fall.
Deputy Police Chief Michel Michel, one of several people interviewed for the Internal Affairs case, said an officer was assigned to patrol the parking lot outside the Hallandale Beach Cultural Center polling place because there was so much animosity between police union members and political candidates.
Capt. Thomas Montellanico, who was present when Roccisano made his kiss remark, described the behavior he saw during the two-week early voting period as “polling theatrics,” the Internal Affairs report says.
Montellanico said he saw Roccisano clap his hands near or behind Lazarow but did not consider the behavior threatening or intimidating.
He characterized some of the comments made by Roccisano as “edgy.”
When interviewed by Internal Affairs, Lazarow said Roccisano taunted her with chants at the polling place, but she acknowledged he was exercising his First Amendment right.
One of his favorite lines: “Hey ho, Lazarow’s got to go!”
Lazarow said Roccisano shouted the chant throughout the day, even when voters weren’t there to hear it.
Roccisano said he was merely being theatrical and playing to the camera since Lazarow often took out her phone to record their exchanges.
Then on Nov. 1, two days before Election Day, Lazarow said Roccisano made the comment that launched the internal investigation: “Well I guess I’m not going to get a kiss tonight.”
She protested, telling him he had no right to talk to her that way, she told the Internal Affairs investigator.
“When you are in a hostile situation and a man says that to you, it was not intended to be in the spirit of fun,” Lazarow said. “It was intended to be condescending and rude. That’s the way I took it. It was harassing and rude.”
Susannah Bryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan