LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – Former New York City police officer and lifelong New Yorker Jamie Smith says he can feel a difference one month into life in Lakeland.
“It’s been a different atmosphere. It’s like night and day. Since we’ve been in Florida, it’s like, so much support for law enforcement,” Smith said. “We do have our supporters in New York but they’re not the loudest voices.”
Smith is one of 13 former NYPD officers who have been hired at Lakeland Police Department in recent months. Twelve of the officers, including Smith, were part of a three-day recruitment trip Lakeland Police leadership took to New York in the spring.
They spent two days in Manhattan and one day in Long Island.
“We’re a smaller agency so we try to sell that we’re family,” Assistant Chief Hans Lehman said.
The Lakeland police team also touted the lower crime rate, work schedule, warmer weather, proximity to Tampa and Orlando and support from the community.
“That was part of our message to them is – they were going to be supported by the administration, the state’s attorney’s office, sheriff’s office, whoever in our county – there’s support for them all the way up,” Lehman said.
“Here – like, I went to Chick-Fil-A – everybody’s nice. ‘Hey how you doin, officer?’ ‘How you doin?’ Over there, you get that a little bit but not too much,” officer-in-training Hector Lopez said.
Lopez is a father of five and lifelong New Yorker. He was an NYPD officer in the Bronx for six years.
Lopez has family in the area. He was excited about the work schedule, benefits and the warm winters.
As a vaccinated officer, the NYPD’s vaccine mandate – which went into effect Friday evening – did not play a role in his decision to come to Florida. In fact, the recruitment occurred before that became an issue.
But Lopez said many of his former colleagues will not return to work.
“A lot of people are gonna resign. Their beliefs are their beliefs and I agree with them. If that’s your belief, if you want to resign then you do what you have to for your family,” he said. “Crime is just going to rise. It’s already rising so I feel like, it’s also gonna put a lot of officers in jeopardy. Your help is probably going to be far away.”
Back at the Lakeland police station, leadership sees the benefits in recruiting experienced officers.
“You can shave four to five months of your training program and still get a good qualified officer because the officers we hired from New York, some of them have five to six years experience,” Lehman said.
Smith and Lopez, and other former NYPD officers, attended training at the station Friday. They are expected to be fully trained in the field sometime this winter.
During a stop at the Lakeland Police Department in September, Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., announced a proposal to give a $5,000 bonus to police officers who move to Florida. The legislation has not yet passed.