Only a few professions demand a potential candidate for hire be willing and able to literally cover a collegue’s back during a possible direct line of fire scenario. Before 42 year veteran on the force, Chief of Police Orlando Martinez de Castro, hires a new police officer they must pass that elusive final test. “If I can’t see them as my partner in a car at 3 a. m. during a shoot-out I won’t hire them,” said Martinez de Castro. The most important thing for an officer to know is that somebody has their back. If you do not feel confident making split decisions in the line of duty, mistakes can happen.”
Covering the backs of some 50 fulltime employees at the South Miami Police Department is a basic part of the chief’s leadership role according to Martinez de Castro. While sitting in his simple second floor office at the station, it is no easy task to draw out details from the man’s life that may offer a bit of insight into who he is. Rather he would have a journalist interview the steady stream of staff members he brings in to share stories about their family dynamic, childhood experiences, and purpose behind pursuing a career in law enforcement.
Detective Lisa King said how awkward it can be when she sees the same kids she just gave a lecture to at the local elementary school about drug abuse, spot her in the cereal aisle at the grocery store. “They see you in plain clothes and everything stops,” said King. Sometimes it is as if they don’t realize that we are people. Yes, we buy groceries just like everybody else. People can become apprehensive and they aren’t necessarily happy to see you when you are out there.”
Unlike the firefighter or paramedic who is happily received when going out on the street, “we aren’t exactly given bon bons and flowers when we go out on a call,” said Martinez de Castro. “This is not an easy job and we are disturbed by the distasteful stuff we see so it is important to be able to come back and talk about it. No one is perfect and everybody has a bad day but we work it out. We are all family here.”
Providing his team with the best state of the art technology so dispatch can locate any officer on location, so detectives can guarantee evidence remains untampered, and so staff can do weekly analyses of crime data to observe trends and stay one step ahead of the criminal mind, was a big score for the Chief. An over one million dollar valued software system purchased from forfeiture dollars for less than half the ticket price was installed last fall. Training and implementation is near completion.
“There has clearly been an evolution in the agency,” said Sergeant Rich James who happened to be in the hallway with Officer W. Ralph Baumer while the chief offered a tour of the station to observe the latest technology in action. “We are no longer the bastard stepchild of police work in Miami like we used to be. The respect we lost is back and that confidence is back. The chief is a cop at heart and he will let us tell him when he messes up.”
Looking back on a storied career in law enforcement and his second tenure with the South Miami Police Department, Martinez de Castro candidly admits that he never thought politics would take such a heavy role in his work as Chief. “It can be discouraging; the role politics plays in this position. I thought it was all about education and knowledge as you moved up the ranks.”
Along with a rich spiritual life he shares with wife Ileana and the seven grandchildren from his three adult children that he gets to be Abuelo for, it is the flexibility of service that is key to making everything work according to the Chief. “Police work is not black and white. There are lots of gray areas. Laws change and the bad guys are always teaching you. We are constantly looking at new ways of doing things. You have to be flexible and modify your actions to provide the best service to the community. You can bend but you cannot break.”