SPRINGFIELD, MA — Florissa Fuentes went through an admittedly rocky adolescence growing up in the city’s North End, finding herself in loads of trouble before a high school-based city police officer persuaded her to move to North Carolina for a new perspective.
Hailing from a heavily military family, Fuentes returned to the city in 2007, a teen hoping for a fresh start. She aimed to join the U.S. Navy, but her brother, Daniel Newsome, was killed in combat in Baghdad, discounting her from enlisting just as she prepared for basic training.
Fuentes eventually set her eyes on a corrections career, graduating from the Western Massachusetts County Correctional Officer’s Training Academy as class president in 2018.
Last year she was among 18 new recruits for the Springfield Police Department. Fuentes was pinned by Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood at a ceremony at Springfield College on July 18, 2019.
However, her career was cut short in under a year. A newly promoted detective in the Special Victims Unit, Fuentes, now 30, was fired on June 19 — about a month after posting a pro-Black Lives Matter image to her personal Instagram account while off duty.
The image showed her niece protesting in Atlanta. Flames leap up in the background and her niece holds a sign that reads: “Shoot the F— Back.” A friend’s sign reads: “Who do we call when the murderer wears the badge?”
The photo was taken May 29, Fuentes said. She posted it the next day, and it wasn’t long before the storm came.
The Atlanta demonstration was one of hundreds across the country and the globe following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 15 during a misdemeanor arrest.
Despite her passion for police work, Fuentes said she wanted to support her niece and the cause. Later she realized how the post inflamed some of her co-workers.
Unlike other local police and fire officials who have been fired or forced to resign over racially charged social media posts, Fuentes, a Latina woman, finds herself on the side of protesters. Civil rights activists and others say this sets her apart.
“After I posted it, I started getting calls and texts from co-workers,” Fuentes said during an interview. “I was initially confused, but then I realized they thought I was being anti-cop. I wasn’t. I was just supporting my niece’s activism. I had no malicious intent, and I wouldn’t put a target on my own back. I’m out there on the streets every day like everyone else.”
Realizing the consternation it had caused, she took the Instagram post down. But soon after, on June 1, she got a call from Capt. Trent Duda, head of the Detective Bureau.
“I said, ‘Cap, I already know why you’re calling. I’m sorry. I meant no malicious intent and I already took it down,‘” Fuentes recounted. “Capt. Duda said Commissioner Clapprood was mad and wanted to see me the next day, but hoped if said exactly what I said to him, I should be fine.”
Duda wrote her up, citing a “possible” social media violation.
The next afternoon, Fuentes met with Clapprood and a wall of brass, as well as the longtime Springfield Police Patrolmen’s Association president, Officer Joseph Gentile.
Clapprood had recently promoted Fuentes, a single mother of three, and granted her a hardship concession so she could home school her children during the pandemic. But on this day, Clapprood told Fuentes she was upset, disappointed and embarrassed.
“The commissioner said: ‘You have to find a way to fix this. I’m getting pressure from the mayor’s office,‘” Fuentes said. “I said, ‘Ok, I’m sorry. How do I fix it?’ Officer Gentile suggested I post an apology on the police union Facebook page. So I went home later and I did.”
Gentile declined to comment for this story. Clapprood denied telling Fuentes to “fix it.”
“I never told her to just fix it. That’s the issue with social media — once you post something it’s out there and you can’t retract it. That post was hurtful to many of her co-workers,” Clapprood said, adding that the move to detective was not necessarily a “promotion” but an effort to accommodate Fuentes’ struggles as a single mother.
“It was the second issue she had, and being on probation, it was my decision to terminate her employment,” the commissioner said.
The Facebook apology drew further abuse and criticism. It read, in part:
“To my fellow officers, I recently shared a post that a family member had posted of themselves protesting the recent death of George Floyd. I did not share this photo with any malicious intent and I should have thought of how others might perceive it. I apologize to all of those who I have offended. I am not anti-cop. I wear my badge proudly and have committed my life and career to being a police officer.”
It was enough for a few, who responded: “I’m good, bro, no worries,” and “No, we are all blue and need to support each other.”
But for others, the apology prompted more vitriol than the original post.
“Keep your apology! … You’re too dangerous or too stupid to safely associate with,” one fellow officer wrote.
The apology post was eventually taken down. Fuentes said she was told to “keep her head down” by supervisors and ride out the negativity in the office, when she typically preferred to be on the streets.
Deputy Chief Rupert Daniel later sent an email to “all sworn,” urging officers to participate in a group photo at Riverfront Park to show that “we are unified, diverse and we still get along.” The photo shoot was scheduled for June 19 at 8 a.m. Some officers groused that it was an inappropriate mandate, and inconvenient given their shifts.
Fuentes showed up, despite ongoing tensions with her colleagues, feeling she owed it to her supervisors and colleagues.
“It wasn’t my shift, but I knew I pissed a lot of people off, so I felt like I owed it to the commissioner and everyone. I was trying to make things right,” she said.
Fuentes endured some harassment from at least one officer and smiled for the camera. Two hours later, she received the call from Gentile saying she must resign or be fired. She chose to be fired.
“I felt used. The commissioner waved at me from her car while I was there. They all knew what was happening,” she said.
Duda declined comment.
New police officers remain on probation and have few protections if they are disciplined, including the right to appeal to an arbitrator or the state Civil Service Commission. So-called tenured officers have those rights, which have historically protected them from a myriad of indiscretions. Fuentes was roughly a month away from tenure.
She is not the only casualty of social media missteps among public employees.
Conrad Lariviere, a tenured Springfield police officer, mocked the death of a woman killed by a man who drove his car into a crowd of anti-racism protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2018. “Hahahaha love this, maybe people shouldn’t block road ways,” Lariviere wrote in a Facebook comment on a news article about the crash. He was fired, and the firing was upheld by an arbitrator.
Recently, Springfield firefighter Joelle Martinez resigned over remarks on his Facebook page threatening to “slam people left and right” as a National Guardsman disgruntled over getting called up to manage protests in Boston in early June. He was cut from the guard and resigned from the Springfield Fire Department over the matter, according to a spokesman who declined further comment.
Chicopee Police Officer Michael Wilk was demoted from public information officer after controversial posts in early June.
Civil rights activists including Bishop Talbert Swan II say Fuentes’ firing does not compare with the ousters of other local cops who ran afoul on social media.
“This is apples and oranges. I doubt the outcome of this would have been the same if she was white. There is a difference in expressing an opinion that might not be popular, and an overtly racist opinion,” said Swan, who has been actively critical of the Springfield Police Department.
A fellow officer of Fuentes’, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, said he believes favoritism is rampant at the department, and Clapprood had the option of extending Fuentes’ probationary period as opposed to firing her.
“There’s a lot of officers who are afraid to speak up about this issue and don’t want to be targeted as well. … Although we agree punishment should have happened … she owned up to it immediately, and said sorry and she was sincere,” the officer said. “There are officers who lied on police reports and have done worse things, yet they remain employed.”
Harris Freeman, a professor at Western New England School of Law who specializes in labor relations and worked on the pertinent state board for years, says balancing First Amendment rights and state labor law can be tricky.
The balance lies between heightened protected free speech rights for public employees and whether the speech in question could reasonably be interpreted as “disrupting the workplace” under state and federal laws. Fuentes’ scenario may be open to interpretation, Freeman said.
“The fact the she is a police officer and that fact that the Instagram post was saying ‘shoot back’ at the police makes this a very challenging case,” he said, while not rendering an opinion on her particular set of circumstances.