Robert Parker, the first African American to lead the Miami-Dade Police Department, was a rare sort of public official in South Florida, a man at the top with few enemies or critics. Parker, who retired six years ago as police director, was found dead with a gunshot wound to his head next to a canal near his northwest Miami-Dade home Wednesday night.
Parker, nicknamed “Marathon Man” early in his 33-year career for outrunning and apprehending suspects, was 62. His death, ruled a suicide by the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner on Thursday, shocked friends and former colleagues.
Police Benevolent Association union Chief John Rivera called Parker a good friend and a great cop. “Sad, sad, day that one of our greatest guardians has left us,” he said
Rivera, who said he had repeatedly tried to recruit Parker to run for county mayor, texted him on Tuesday for his birthday, nudging him to think about a political campaign. “Happy birthday my dear friend (and next mayor),” Rivera wrote.
Parker texted back with similar humor: “Thank you John, Mr. President.”
Miami-Dade Police Maj. Hector Llevat said it was unclear why Parker might have killed himself. No note was found. It would be “purely guesses at this point. I'm not sure we'll ever know,” Llevat said.
From the outside, Parker seemed set for a content retirement. The family's has a comfortable home in a neighborhood just below the Cloverleaf and west of Northwest Seventh Avenue. He left the department he led for five years in 2009, at an annual salary of $226,000, with a severance of over $400,000 and a hefty pension. Two of his three children, son Robert Jr. and daughter Kalika, along with his wife Veronica, work for the county police department. Earlier this year, he was tapped to help a team review police procedures and practices in Baltimore following the riots there in April.
Born in Monticello, Florida, on July 21, 1953, Parker spent three years in the Army before joining the police department in 1976 as a road patrol officer. “He seemed like a sponge, absorbing any information he could to do the job,” said his first field training officer, Sgt. Walk Walkington, in a 2004 Miami Herald article that reported his ascension to police director.
Parker earned his bachelor’s of science in professional studies from Barry University in 1994. The school released a statement from President Sister Linda Bevilacqua that read, in part: “Parker worked tirelessly to ensure the safety of residents in our county for more than 30 years and made history by becoming the first African-American director of that police department.”
Parker, widely known as “Bobby”,” modestly downplayed his history-making rise within the department after he replaced Carlos Alvarez, who had resigned from the post to run for Miami-Dade mayor.
“I’ve been hearing the race issue all my life,” Parker said in a 2004 Miami Herald article. “It’s a reality, but it’s not going to stop me or slow me. If the world is obsessed with race, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
So he did his job, racking up commendations and the respect of his fellow officers.
“There was no one more dedicated to this community and to law enforcement in general than Director Parker who was a role model, mentor, and friend. My heart goes out to his family and all who will experience this void that cannot ever be filled,” wrote Maj. Delrish Moss of the Miami Police Department on Facebook.
Parker had a motto: “Do your job.” He applied it to his work ethic and counseled his family in the law enforcement field to do the same.
“I told them to just always do what you’re supposed to do,” he said in the 2004 Herald story.
When Parker turned in his retirement papers, he said he did so partly to preserve his benefits, which would have taken a hit when Alvarez, then-mayor, announced a 5 percent pay cut for most non-union employees. “As well as it’s time to retire,” he told the Herald.
“Director Parker was committed to making South Florida a safer place to work, live and visit. He was a well-respected and celebrated leader who fought to create opportunities for men and women of color,” said Rep. Frederica Wilson in a statement Thursday.
“As a longtime mentor and leader of the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project, Director Parker worked closely with me to save at-risk minority boys and young men. I dubbed him the ‘Face of the Role Models.’ His impact is evident by the countless success stories of Role Model boys, who under his mentorship have gone on to college and thriving careers,” Wilson said.
“His service, commitment and dedication to the community will be greatly missed,” said County Police Director J.D. Patterson. “No words can express my heartfelt condolences for my friend Bobby, his wife, family, colleagues and friends.”
His sudden death is at odds with how he lived. On a street of single family homes, Parker’s stands out. A patch of sabal palms cover a circular driveway and a well-kept lawn that leads to the red brick home with a shingled roof.
Neighbors said Parker's two sons, Robert Jr. and Kyron, knocked on the door of a home across the street looking for their dad mid-evening Wednesday night. The power was out on the street for several hours, making the search difficult. Parker's body was found in the grass under trees along the Biscayne Canal. At his side was his gun. His sons and a neighbor saw a lone head wound.
George Frye, who lives a couple of homes down, said the former police director welcomed him to the neighborhood when he moved in 13 years ago. “It's hard to believe. You never know. Depression hits us in different ways,” he said.
Frye said the Parkers were extremely quiet and private. Like others who knew Parker, Frye never saw evidence of any serious problems.
Parker’s family released a statement Thursday.
“We thank the Miami-Dade Police Department and the community for all their support at this difficult time. Words cannot express the sadness my family feels from losing such a strong, compassionate and God-fearing man. What little relief we feel, comes from remembering that he spent his life in service to his community and from realizing that we are not alone; that we are surrounded and supported by the people he loved and cherished the most.”
John Roper, who ran Crime Stoppers before he retired in 2002, was one of Parker's first partners. The pair covered the county's north end in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
He recalled a time when Parker caught notorious doper and thief Ronald Armstrong, who was famous for eluding capture. Parker, earning his Marathon Man handle, caught Armstrong on foot.
Roper said that after that incident, every time the duo would drive past a U-Totem in the district, all the people standing around would scatter.
“When I asked them why,” said Roper, “they said because he was the guy who caught Ronald Armstrong. He was just a super individual who didn't forget from whence he came.”
Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.