Miami Beach’s top cop says political winds shifted

Ray Martinez always seems to take center stage at a police department in crisis, gets praised for a job well done — and then exits after political upheaval.

He was the calm voice of Miami police in 2000 during the months-long international showdown over young Cuban rafter Elián González — before leaving a year later when a new mayor and police chief swept into office.

More than a decade later, Martinez found himself leading the Miami Beach police department, an agency with a less-than-stellar reputation after a pair of highly publicized policing blunders in 2011.

That year in Miami Beach, during Memorial Day Weekend, a group of cops from Miami Beach and other agencies unleashed 116 bullets, killing a drunk driver — and injuring four innocent bystanders.

Just over a month later, two Beach cops were photographed partying with a group of young women while on duty. But it was the joyride on the all-terrain vehicle later that evening, by one of the officers with one of the women aboard, that drew the real attention after they drove over a couple on the beach, causing serious injury.

Four months later, Police Chief Carlos Noriega was gone. Enter Martinez.

On Thursday, Martinez announced he would be leaving the department on April 4. His two-page letter to City Manager Jimmy Morales also included achievements. Among them: Beach police have not fired a single bullet in more than two years, and major crimes have gone down.

“The police department is clearly now moving in the right direction,” said Martinez.

The announcement seems to have caught the city a little flat-footed. Morales has asked Martinez to stick around until a new chief is hired, and Mayor Philip Levine promised that a national search with an executive search team would begin soon.

Often, when the police chief of a major city announces his departure, possible replacements have already been identified. That doesn’t seem to be the case in Miami Beach, despite Martinez and others insinuating his departure was a foregone conclusion.

“I understand that the mayor and commission want to move in a new direction, and I respect that,” Martinez said.

Piped in Beach Commissioner Deede Weithorn: “I certainly understand that he’s concerned that he doesn’t have political support.”

In Miami Beach, the police chief reports to the city manager, who is the chief executive of city government. But the city manager reports to the elected city commission, of which the mayor is chairman.

Mayor Levine issued a three-paragraph statement on Martinez’s planned exit, saying he was “grateful” for Martinez’s service and that “we wish him the very best in his future endeavors.”

Close friend and business executive Rodney Barreto said Martinez saw the writing on the wall. The two began their policing careers together in Miami in the late 1970s. When Martinez joined the Miami Beach force in 2001, Barreto’s brother, Richard Barreto, was chief.

“You serve at the pleasure of the manager, and the manager serves at the pleasure of elected officials, it’s not hard to figure out,” said Rodney Barreto “He did an incredible job fixing the department. You don’t hear a lot of craziness anymore. But timing is everything in the world.”

Martinez applied to be chief of police in South Miami just two weeks after the new commission was elected. He didn’t get the job. He isn’t certain yet of what’s in store for him, but said he may teach at Florida International University for a while.

Martinez, 55, served in the U.S. Marine Corps before joining the Miami police in 1979, where he worked his way up to assistant chief. He left not long after sweeping change in the city ushered in a new mayor and a new police chief named John Timoney.

Martinez’s growth as a cop for 22 years in Miami forged his identity. He served as a patrol officer, a firearms inspector, a robbery detective, commander and SWAT team member, among other posts. The fragments of a bullet remain in his neck from a shooting during a warehouse police sting.

In the fall of 2011, when Noriega decided he’d had enough, Martinez was sworn in as chief. Like in Miami, his departure comes after sweeping political winds shifted the balance of power on Miami Beach.

After the 2011 policing incidents, Morales’ predecessor was ousted in 2012 after a string of highly publicized public-corruption arrests of city employees. The procurement director was accused of taking bribes for doling out city contracts, and city code and fire inspectors were nabbed in an FBI sting, accused of extorting a night club operator.

Since Morales took over, 85 city employees have quit, resigned or been fired.

But last November marked the most extensive change: A fed-up voting public cast aside longtime elected leaders and chose business executive Levine as mayor. Three new commissioners were also elected, none of them with any prior political experience.

And as in Miami, Martinez felt his days were numbered.

“I make this decision to retire at the right time for the city, the department, and myself,” Martinez said. “The establishment of new leadership in the city, both a new mayor and commission, also provides an opportunity to move forward and build upon the incredible successes of our department in the past two years.”

To be sure, there were some scandals under Martinez’s watch.

A plainclothes detective has been accused of roughing up a drunk model and kicking a man in the head who came to her aid. The police department’s use of force has been questioned in last summer’s death of local graffiti artist Israel Hernandez-Llach.

And more recently, City Manager Morales yanked control of the city’s 911 call center from the police department after a television news story showed pictures of employees who appeared to be asleep on the job. The department is currently being audited by the Police Executive Research Forum.

Still, Martinez received positive reviews for taking the reins of a department that had become the butt of jokes for late-night television hosts.

Morales called Martinez “an officer and a gentleman,” and said he’s enjoyed working with him.

Martinez even won over an initially skeptical police union.

“We want stability in our department,” said Alex Bello, president of the Miami Beach Fraternal Order of Police. “And I think in recent times we have accomplished that under Martinez’s leadership.”