When Vicky Merino is home, she’s a mother dedicated to taking care of her family, but when she puts on her uniform, she is a sergeant with nerves of steel.
She’s 41 and for almost half of adult life, she’s worked as a police officer, an idea whose seeds were planted in childhood.
“Not even the negative comments from her father stopped her. He was very afraid because it’s a very dangerous line of work but when Vicky sets her mind to something,” said Merino’s mother, Angela Hurtado de Mendoza. “There’s no one who can convince her otherwise.”
Her passion for police work earned her the accolade of Coral Gables Police Officer of the Year 2014.
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Merino is only the third woman to receive the award since its inception in 1965. And in between her police work, she manages a hectic schedule as wife and mother. She’s married to a Hialeah police officer, and they have four children: three daughters, ages 20, 11 and 3 and an 18-year-old son.
“Where does she make the time and get that strength? It must be God-given,” said her husband, Sgt. Benny Merino.
She wakes up around 4 a.m. every day, prepares meals for her husband and children, walks her three dogs and straightens up the home. At work, she’s in charge of a squadron of police officers and much of her work revolves around violent crime.
“Even so, she comes home every afternoon and helps our children with their homework or takes them to gymnastics class or singing classes and is always actively running around doing something for the family,” said her husband. “And she always has the best attitude; I honestly don’t know how she does it.”
A PULSE OF STEEL AND MANY ACHIEVEMENTS ALONG THE WAY
When she was 22 and just one month after giving birth to her first daughter, Merino took the physical agility test (P.A.T); it’s the most difficult evaluation of the 29 tests one must pass to be accepted into the police academy.
Merino, only five-foot, two-inches tall and weighing 119 pounds, had to scale walls, make it through obstacle courses and carry up to 180 pounds.
“I didn’t have any type of previous preparation and for some moments I thought I was going to faint,” said Merino, who was born in Miami to Cuban parents. “But I just kept repeating the same mantra to myself: You have to do it, you have no other option.”
During her last week of training, she made her first arrest, arresting one of the rapists who had abused and battered two youths in Coconut Grove.
“They had just given us the description of the suspects through our police radio,” she said. “I could detect that it was him because he’s a very violent repeat offender so I arrested him immediately.”
And although these types of arrests are not common in the city of Coral Gables, Merino has had multiple arrests of thieves and gang members.
She’s been honored as police officer of the month on two occasions. Last May, she solved a bank robbery case in less than 24 hours and last November, she led an investigation involving the falsification of merchandise and residential robberies. Six people were prosecuted.
But perhaps one of the most significant moments in her career took place last November, when Merino had to decide between saving a life and capturing three criminals who had just come from burglarizing a home in Coral Gables. Merino was heading to the home when she spotted a car going very fast on Bird Road in Coral Gables. She made a U-turn and watched the car crash into two other cars (a BMW and Volkswagen) at the intersection of Granada Boulevard and Bird Road.
“I saw a car that was suspect and it was in the same area in which a robbery had taken place,” Merino said. “The car looked differently as to how it was described by witnesses but something told me to follow it.”
The thieves were in the vehicle and escaped on foot. Meanwhile, the crash victims were seriously injured. Merino quickly assessed where the three would most likely take refuge and assigned officers to head there. In less than five minutes, police captured the three while she attended to the victims.
Ed Hudak Jr., Coral Gables interim chief of police, said Merino is “a disciplined police officer, with an acute investigative sense and a dedication and rigor that’s unbreakable.”
But to her family members and friends, she’s a woman who “has the softest and kindest heart in the world.”
“She’s one of the most sensible and compassionate people I know; for me, she’s like an undercover minister,” said Lily Garcia, a pastor at the Iglesia Oasis church which Merino attends. “She’s called me many times crying and seeking comfort because it affects her to see disadvantaged elders or abused children while on the job. She’s always trying to help them on her off hours.”
On one occasion, while she was on a routine patrol, Merino found an elderly woman who had been evicted from her house and had been living in her car for more than a week.
“She took money out of pocket to pay for a warm and safe place for the woman to sleep until she could find a good shelter to stay in for a longer period of time,” said Garcia. “That’s Vicky!”
Merino emphasizes how that type of community spirit is common among police officers, particularly in Coral Gables.
“It’s sad to see how police officers have become targets of insults and sometimes even murder,” she said.
Merino said she has been threatened by people she’s arrested and sometimes has been heckled for wearing her police uniform.
“There’s a stigma surrounding police officers that has been created due to isolated scandals which are far removed from what we really do,” said Merino. “Like in any profession, there’s people who commit malpractice or don’t do their jobs as they should, but after 18 years of working in this field, I can assure you that we, the good police officers, outnumber all others.”
Follow Estephani Cano on Twitter: @EstephaniCano