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Officer fired for physically harassing a co-worker, mocking her fear of covid-19, police say

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/7/2021 Marisa Iati
a group of people standing next to an umbrella: People wait for coronavirus tests in Miami Beach, Fla., in June while infections there surged. (Lynne Sladky/AP) People wait for coronavirus tests in Miami Beach, Fla., in June while infections there surged. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

A police officer in central Florida was recently fired after allegedly hugging a colleague against her will while mocking her fear of contracting the coronavirus — an example of how some have socially weaponized the deadly pathogen.

Longwood Police Department investigators also determined that Cpl. David Hernandez was “not fully forthcoming and not truthful” about the allegations after his co-worker filed a complaint about the July incident, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

Hernandez ignored his co-worker’s instructions not to touch her, according to an internal investigative report first obtained by the Sentinel. Instead, he followed her into her workspace while “taunting her with comments about her being afraid of contracting COVID-19,” which was surging in Florida at the time.

The woman claimed that Hernandez ridiculed her as a “germaphobe,” touched her personal items and spoke into her phone while saying that he didn’t have the coronavirus, local television station WESH reported, citing the internal document. The employee also alleged that she hurt her finger and back while struggling to escape Hernandez.

Hernandez and a union officer whom the Sentinel reported represented him did not immediately respond Saturday to messages seeking comment.

Firing an officer accused of mocking someone’s coronavirus concerns appears uncommon. Throughout the pandemic, officers have often been on the other side of citizens’ threats to infect them with the virus, forcing prosecutors to wrestle with whether intentionally coughing on a law enforcement officer is a crime.

People have also weaponized the coronavirus in stores by licking or coughing on products, sometimes leading to criminal charges. In one case, a man accused of licking deodorant in a Missouri Walmart was charged with making a terrorist threat in the second degree, a felony.

But the Longwood officer’s firing may have been based more on the alleged physical aggression than on the other employee’s fear of contracting the virus, said Arnold Zack, a former president of the National Academy of Arbitrators who teaches labor law at Harvard University. He said the fact that the alleged aggressor is male and the other employee is female also suggests that concern over sexual harassment factored into the termination.

“I don’t think the charges are separable,” Zack said in an email. “The covid component strengthens the unwanted aggression to even more dangerous consequences because of covid-19.”

Longwood Police Chief David Dowda emphasized the allegations that Hernandez, a member of the department since 2005, had violated his co-worker’s physical boundaries in his review of the situation, the Sentinel reported.

The woman “told you not to touch her and physically backed away from you and crossed her arms,” Dowda wrote, according to the Sentinel. “This was more than sufficient indication for you to know to stop trying to embrace her.”

Dowda, who did not reply to an email Saturday, wrote that Hernandez gave investigators “inaccurate and conflicting information” several times and withheld relevant facts.

In addition to violating department policies on safety, harassment and conduct, Hernandez’s actions also met the requirements for a criminal battery charge, Dowda wrote, according to the Sentinel. He noted that the force did not conduct a criminal investigation because the female employee did not want to press charges.

Hernandez is entitled to an arbitration hearing in which he can contest his termination, the Sentinel reported.

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