William O’Brien was a cop’s cop until the very end.
He patrolled some of Miami’s hardest streets, commanded the SWAT team and became the city’s top cop in 1998. When he announced his resignation following the federal raid that returned child rafter Elián González to his father in Cuba, officers cried.
No doubt, a few hardened police officers shed tears again after “Bill” O’Brien lost a battle with throat cancer early Thursday morning at the age of 71. He died in his sleep at his home in Tavernier, where in his final days former colleagues and admirers came to share stories and pay tribute to Miami’s 21st police chief.
“He was an old-time cop,” said Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes, who recently brought O’Brien a new gold chief’s badge after learning he’d lost his old one. “He was admired because he was a man of high integrity.”
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One of the greatest honors I ever had was the day I appointed him chief.
Former Miami City Manager Donald Warshaw on Police Chief Bill O’Brien
O’Brien earned his sterling reputation over 25 years. He worked the K-9 unit, patrolled Liberty City, served three and a half years in internal affairs and started the department’s first sexual-battery unit. He was chosen to spend a year on special assignment, planning Pope John Paul II’s visit to Miami in 1987.
He settled on the SWAT team for 18 years, where he helped train hundreds of officers and participated in more than 300 missions. As news spread of his declining health, members of Miami’s current SWAT team traveled to the Florida Keys in a new tactical vehicle to visit him. His old SWAT colleagues also stopped by recently with food and a cooler filled with Budweiser and shared old stories for hours.
“They were a gnarly, icy group of men who worked together to do great things for Miami,” said O’Brien’s wife of many decades, Sharron.
But their stories weren’t all about standoffs and raids: O’Brien once pooled money with the rest of the team to buy food for an impoverished mother and her hungry children.
One of the biggest dangers in police work isn’t being shot or stabbed, although that does happen; it’s hardening of the soul.”
Bill O’Brien in 1998
“One of the biggest dangers in police work isn’t being shot or stabbed, although that does happen; it’s hardening of the soul,” he told the Herald in 1998. “You have to work to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
O’Brien grew up a small-town boy in La Grange, Illinois, and first came to Miami as an 18-year-old. He studied political science at the University of Miami before a five-year stint as an Air Force pilot, during which he flew a C-130 Hercules into combat zones in Vietnam and met his future wife. Sharron O’Brien said her husband wanted to launch a career as a pilot after his service, but was unable to find work due to the 1973 oil embargo. So, even though he detested handguns, he became a police officer.
His work spanned some of the most dangerous and tumultuous moments in Miami’s history. He helped investigate the riots in 1980 sparked by the acquittal of four white police officers in the fatal beating of black motorcyclist Arthur McDuffie. He also gave the original tip that led to the undercover corruption investigation known as Operation Greenpalm in the mid-1990s, which involved kickback schemes and sent to jail City Manager Cesar Odio, Commissioner Miller Dawkins and lobbyist Jorge de Cardenas.
When O’Brien became chief, he said it was the only thing that topped breaking the sound barrier in a supersonic jet.
“One of the greatest honors I ever had was the day I appointed him chief,” said former City Manager Donald Warshaw. “He was a dedicated, focused, smart, fiercely independent professional.”
Fiercely independent, indeed. O’Brien’s tenure with the police department came to an abrupt end after the federal government’s dramatic raid of a Little Havana home to seize 6-year-old Elián González and return the boy to his father in Cuba in the spring of 2000.
It was one of the many large issues in Bill’s life, but it didn’t define him.”
Sharron O’Brien, on the Elián González saga
Elián’s stay with relatives in Miami after a harrowing trip across the Florida Straits killed his mother engulfed city politics, and the raid became a flash point in a heated national debate. O’Brien was aware the raid was happening but did not let Warshaw or Cuban-born Mayor Joe Carollo know about the dramatic early-morning seizure for fear of breaking the law and, equally important, increasing the possibility of confrontation.
“It was not unusual for him to say, ‘If you’re making decisions out of concern for your job, then you’ve already lost the war,’ ” his wife said Saturday morning, reflecting back on the drama that led her husband to resign. “It was one of the many large issues in Bill’s life, but it didn’t define him.”
O’Brien retired to the decidedly quieter Tavernier in the Florida Keys, where he had a weekend home and spent countless hours diving and fishing aboard his boat, Captains Two. He helped launch the Florida Upper Keys Runners club, and if you stop by Jimmy Johnson’s Big Chill on Key Largo, you might spot O’Brien in pictures on the wall.
O’Brien’s friends and family are planning a celebration of his life at the Florida Keys History and Discovery Center, although a date has not yet been set. He is survived by his wife, brother and three sisters. In lieu of flowers, his family asks that donations be made to the Coral Shores High School Track Program.