Hialeah mayor picks new chief from within — hoping to put scandal in rear view mirror

After several months of interviews with dozens of candidates from around the country, Hialeah Mayor Steve Bovo ushered in a “new era” for his scandalized police department Monday — but he didn’t venture far from home.

George Fuente, a 43-year-old Hialeah police lifer who worked his way to deputy chief and had been serving as interim chief since Bovo removed Sergio Velasquez last November, was picked by the mayor to run the department permanently.

“I’m humbled,” said Fuente, who is married and has a young son and daughter. “This is where my family lives. This is where my heart is at.”

Fuente, who joined Hialeah police as a 14-year-old cadet and who is in his 25th year with the department, was chosen by Bovo from a final group of three. During his time in Hialeah he has served as a major in patrol, in administration and of criminal investigations. A search committee appointed by the city had whittled down the number of candidates from almost three dozen who applied for the position.

“He’s not only given his life to this community,” the mayor said of Fuente, “but to this department.”

Choosing a new chief is the most significant move in Bovo’s brief, five-month tenure as the strong mayor of the fifth largest city in the state. Less than a week after his swearing in last November, Bovo removed the embattled Velazquez and replaced him with Fuente, whose wife Katharine Cue-Fuente is a former city council member.

At the time, Hialeah was reeling from a scandal that led to the arrest of one of its police officers, charged with sexually assaulting a handful of teenage girls and young women while on duty. In December 2019, FBI agents arrested a decorated sergeant named Jesús Menocal Jr. for violating the female victims’ civil rights. Menocal pleaded guilty just three weeks ago and is facing up to three years in prison.

Three years earlier, Velázquez gave Menocal a reprieve after he had assigned him desk duty during a state investigation of the sexual assault allegations. And even while Menocal was under investigation, Velázquez was being probed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement after a Hialeah businessman accused him of torching his truck.

The accusation, made in 2015, came while Velázquez was dating the businessman’s former girlfriend, who also happened to be the mother of the man’s daughter. The businessman accused the chief of harassing him over a custody battle involving the daughter. FDLE agents ultimately couldn’t prove Velázquez was behind the arson attack and closed the case without charging him.

Hoping to put the scandals behind them, Bovo and Fuente looked to the future Monday, addressing the need for more officers and the mayor’s desire to have cops interacting more with the public. Fuente said there are 40 young cadets who will soon be patrolling Hialeah’s streets. State statistics show that Hialeah has one of the lowest police to resident ratios in the state.

“We need to invest in police,” said the mayor, recalling his position as a councilman in the city in 2001, when it had more officers than it does today.

Fuente, who is expected to officially take the reins Friday, now oversees a department of about 300 officers in a city of 235,000 people. The department’s budget is $66 million.

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