Seven police cadets dismissed in scandal

Sex and race issues are factors. St. Petersburg officials say juvenile conduct played a part.

Published May 8, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - The Police Department fired almost a quarter of a recruiting class for making racially charged remarks, a move that has left the academy in turmoil.

St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon said the department dismissed seven cadets in a class of 29 for telling racist jokes and using racist slurs.

That type of behavior "is something we as a department do not tolerate and will not tolerate, " Harmon said.

Department officials said they could not provide details because an internal affairs investigation won't be completed for weeks. Several other cadets are under review for "their failure to report those issues, " Harmon said.

All seven cadets were dismissed from the police academy at St. Petersburg College's Allstate Center on April 27 for "conduct unbecoming an employee." The academy takes 21 weeks to complete, after which the cadets undergo more training before becoming officers.

The two cadets at the center of the scandal said it involved a volatile mix of sex and race. Two of the cadets were half Puerto Rican, two were black and three were white.

Another factor: adolescent feuding.

"Although the investigation is not yet complete, they saw enough juvenile behavior to say that these people should be terminated, " said Bill Proffitt, a spokesman for the department.

The problems began during a lunch at a local Olive Garden, according to fired cadet Domenico Cinelli, 25.

Cinelli told the St. Petersburg Times on Monday that he repeated a joke about why black men make good basketball players. No one at the lunch, attended by black and white cadets, seemed to mind, Cinelli said.

Cinelli said another cadet at the lunch, 23-year-old Teresa Roman, later accused him of telling a racist joke, and using racial slurs to characterize her relationship with an African-American cadet.

Cinelli admitted to telling the joke, but said the rest of Roman's story is a "flat-out lie." She made accusations against him because she had a crush on him and he didn't reciprocate, he said.

Cinelli pointed out that his father is Italian, his mother Puerto Rican. His father's family didn't approve of the marriage, and his mother, a teacher, taught him to be more open-minded. His parents even took in a black classmate whose mother had died and raised him as their own.

"So how could I be racist?" Cinelli asked, frustrated.

Teresa Roman, who is half Puerto Rican, told the Times she didn't make the initial complaint against Cinelli and doesn't know who did. When the department began investigating, Roman said she told them that Cinelli had made derogatory remarks about her relationships with black men.

Roman laughed off Cinelli's statement that she had a crush on him.

"The issue wasn't the joke. ... No one cared at the Olive Garden, " she said. "When other things (about Cinelli) started coming up, it became an issue then."

Nick Samuels, who is black, told the Times he was fired after other cadets reported overhearing him use the n-word in a conversation with another black cadet. Samuels said that he grew up in the Bronx, N.Y, where black men often use of the n-word.

"It's almost like being singled out for where I grew up, and them not being able to understand that, " Samuels said.

Samuels, a married 29-year-old father of three, said he worked for a year to gain admission to the academy. Now, he has lost the chance to provide a better life for his family.

"Am I not supposed to talk about my past because I'm a cop?"

The department can dismiss cadets at any time because they are probationary employees.

The other dismissed cadets include Michael Vignale, 23, Michael Nardi, 25, Nicholas Matthews, 23, and Thaddeus Boston, 30. They could not be reached for comment.

The St. Petersburg Police Department has long struggled to recruit and retain officers. The dismissals could make recruitment efforts even more difficult.

Roman said she should have listened to people who warned her not to join the department.

"I heard from a lot of people that work there now. They told me not to work there because it's a horrible department and it's very political. And for some reason I applied anyway, " she said. "I guess I should've taken their advice."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.