As a kid growing up in Little Havana just down the street from the Orange Bowl, Rodolfo Llanes used to dream about being a Miami cop.
He entered the Police Explorers program at 14, became a public service aide after graduating from Miami Senior High, and then nabbed a spot on the force as a patrol officer. After that, he set a new goal: to become chief.
On Monday, after 27 years climbing the ladder, Llanes got his wish. City Manager Daniel Alfonso picked the department lifer and assistant chief to lead the city’s high-profile, 1,150-member department, starting next month.
Llanes will rely on his of experience at Miami PD to lead the force, starting at the end of January when current Chief Manuel Orosa retires. The department remains under the watch of the U.S. Department of Justice, continues to deal with spiking homicides and mass shootings in the inner city, and just recently suspended several cops implicated in an alleged towing kick-back scheme.
“We’re going to hit the ground running. I don’t have to learn about the police department. I know what’s there. I know what changes need to be made,” Llanes told a gaggle of media following a press conference at Miami City Hall. “We all know what we have to do.”
Llanes, 48, was selected out of more than 50 applicants, some from as far away as Seattle and San Antonio. Two committees whittled the list down to four last month, including Llanes, Deputy Chief Luis Cabrera, Dallas Deputy Chief Malik Aziz and Hugo Barrera, special agent in charge of the Miami field division of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Many at city hall and in the department believed Alfonso would pick Cabrera, perceived to be the candidate of choice of Mayor Tomás Regalado. But Alfonso instead tabbed a close associate of Orosa, one who will provide a seamless transition between administrations and still satisfy Regalado’s desire to keep the police chief in house.
“I just felt that Llanes was the right person right now for the job,” said Alfonso, who hired a firm to conduct background investigations of all the candidates and spent at least a day with each.
Llanes, who many call “Rudy,” said he came to Miami from Cuba on one of the Freedom Flights in 1970 and became an officer in 1987. He rose to the position of lieutenant, overseeing the midnight platoon, in 2000. He has been a commander working in the neighborhoods of Allapattah, Coral Way and West Little Havana and spent six months in 2007 overseeing Internal Affairs. He was promoted to major in 2007, only to be demoted back to lieutenant by then-chief Miguel Exposito in 2009 during a shake-up of the department’s brass.
He was promoted to assistant chief in 2011 after Orosa took over as chief. Orosa said Llanes currently handles internal affairs, special investigations, and all the department’s relationships with other police forces. Llanes is also overseeing a controversial body-camera program that could expand the use of video recording across much of the department.
Llanes’ personnel file is filled with commendations for community work and arrests, including an incident where he chased down a gunman who fled from a bar in a truck. There are only a few minor blemishes, including a substantiated internal affairs probe over whether he improperly purchased a three-dollar potted plant from a narcotics suspect believed to be transporting drugs inside the plant, and an incident in 1997 when a converter plugged into his cigarette lighter short-circuited and set his squad car on fire.
But Llanes, whose adult daughters’ friends sometimes call him “Papa Crab” — he’s grumpy sometimes— has a good reputation in and around the city. He was welcomed by the city’s police union president, who in a statement said he hopes their relationship will be better than the strained communications with Orosa.
Llanes said his style isn’t dramatically different than Orosa’s, but said he intends to aggressively court better relationships with “the community.” That was welcome news to Rev. Jerome Starling, an anti-gun activist whose niece was killed years ago by a stray bullet.
“The chief has got to look at what’s working and not working. He has to understand what we need to put out in the streets to make more arrests. What we have, there’s a lot of criminals running around,” he said.
Llanes’ selection comes less than 24 hours after five men were shot in a drive-by outside an Overtown apartment complex. Such mass shootings have grown in profile in recent years, if not in number. The city of 400,000 has experienced a spate of shootings in Liberty City this year, and the number of homicides has spiked in 2014 even as other crimes have dropped.
That’s a point the city’s commissioners have made repeatedly over the last year, while calling this hire among the most important in the city. Alfonso has been told more than once that his job may ride on Llanes’ performance.
The new chief also takes over the force amid a national focus on police-involved deaths. Jeanne Baker, a member of the Florida chapter of the ACLU who participated in selecting the new chief, said relations between Miami police and the black community also remain somewhat raw following a spate of police-shootings of black men several years ago.
Some of those shootings were reviewed by the Justice Department, which last year said a look at 33 shootings showed Miami police had a history of excessive force. Justice asked a federal judge to keep tabs on the department, and the federal government continues to monitor the department’s hiring practices.
“There’s a lot of unfinished business in this city with respect to police practices,” Baker said.
Llanes may not have much time to put his fingerprints on the department. In 2009 he entered the city’s Deferred Retirement Option Program, which sets a retirement date while paying out a monthly pension benefit into a tax-deferred nest-egg account. His annual benefit was worth $133,000 three years ago, according to pension fund documents, and he will be paid $180,000 as police chief, according to Alfonso.
Llanes said he will be low-key until Orosa retires. But he said he will get to work soon making changes within the department and bridging gaps outside it.
“We’re going to use progressive tactics. We’re going to use relationships as a tool for this department,” he said in a short speech. “We’ve all lost that feeling of nobility of what it means to be a police officer. And that affects everyone, the community and the workforce too. So we’re going to bring that back.”
El Nuevo Herald reporter Brenda Medina contributed to this report.