Popular Miami-Dade police director Jim Loftus to retire early

Being Miami-Dade County’s top cop has never been a job for the faint of heart.

There’s the steady stream of phone calls, day and night.

The unyielding sense of worry – about growing crime and constant danger facing the rank and file.

The nagging fear that those closest to you are being neglected.

And when Miami-Dade Police Director Jim Loftus announced his early retirement Thursday, he was thinking about his two young daughters, that he did not want them to grow up with a half-time father.

“It’s one thing when you’re not there physically,’ he said. “But when you’re at a soccer game or a soccer practice and your kid come off the field and says, ‘Hey, did you see what I did out there,’ and the answer consistently is no because you’re on the telephone, that’s not a good answer.”

After nearly two years heading the county’s largest police department, Loftus, 56, held back tears as he spoke of his leaving.

“You can’t shut this place off at 5 o’clock,’’ he said. “It just doesn’t work that way. And if you do that, you’re cheating on the people who work here and you’re cheating the people you serve.”

Loftus’ announcement comes after a bruising political primary season that ended Tuesday when voters re-elected his boss, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who beat Commissioner Joe Martinez, the candidate of the police union, which sought to link the mayor to allegations of absentee ballot fraud.

A Miami-Dade police probe this month netted the arrest of two people accused of voter fraud involving absentee ballots.

But Loftus said he has been mulling the move for months, and insisted political pressures played no role in his decision to retire early.

“Let’s be real clear about this. My decision to leave here is my decision,” he said. “I’m not being ousted or encouraged to leave or discouraged from staying. It is my time.”

Said Gimenez: “I’ve asked the director to stay a number of times. I like him tremendously, I admire him tremendously, and this is his personal choice. We tried to talk him into staying longer."

A national search likely will be conducted, Gimenez said. Meanwhile, Miami-Dade assistant police directors Naim Erched and J.D. Patterson will oversee the department.

Many of the department’s officers remained devoted to Loftus, after trying times that included sharp salary cuts and the highly publicized killing of two officers in the line of duty.

“It’s a big blow to our department,” said Miami-Dade Detective Tomas Tundidor, of the organized crime bureau. “I’ve been on 23 years and he’s the best director we’ve ever had. I don’t even know if I can put in words. Everybody is just kind of shocked.”

At a press conference Thursday, Loftus wistfully called himself a “lousy son and a lousy brother,” saying he plans to spend more time with family in Pennsylvania. He also spoke candidly about yearning to spend time with his daughters as they enter their teens. The memories of his father dying of lung cancer when he was just 14 are still fresh.

The chief’s job certainly would not have gotten easier for Loftus.

Gimenez’s overall proposed 2013 budget for the police department calls for an overall cut of $5.7 million.

With its 3,076 sworn personnel, the department serves as the local police agency for unincorporated Miami-Dade County and several smaller cities. Some cities with their own police departments, such as Coral Gables and Homestead, contract with Miami-Dade to investigate major felonies.

“During the past couple of years, I’ve been asked to describe my duties as director. Simply stated, my job has been to worry,” Loftus wrote in an e-mail to his officers. “I think I’ve done my part, while you; the men and women of this department, have in large measure, done the rest of the work.

“Your courage, caring and commitment to doing what is right, no matter the cost, makes this department what it is: tested but unbroken, vigilant in a time of great turmoil and uncertainty, unrelenting in the face of danger.”

His last official day is Oct. 1, but he will leave Friday to burn vacation and other accrued time.

A Pittsburgh native and the Catholic son of a U.S. Marine-turned-florist father, Loftus entered police work in his hometown.

By 1983, he was a patrol officer in Metro Dade. He rose through the ranks, working internal affairs as a sergeant. Later, as a lieutenant, Loftus coordinated logistics at the ValuJet crash scene in 1996 in the Everglades. He also served as a captain and a major in homicide, before becoming a division chief and an assistant director. His wife is retired Miami-Dade Sgt. Candy Loftus, and their two daughters are ages 11 and 13.

In 2010, he was named chief, succeeding a retiring Robert Parker.

Loftus inherited a department that had grown bloated at the top, and at times was mired in scandal in the upper ranks. The director responded by slashing 12 command positions, in the face of a strained budget. He combined several bureaus and dismantled an auto theft task force.

His unassuming and frank demeanor nevertheless inspired fierce loyalty among the rank-and-file.

Perhaps his most defining moment came in January 2011, after a gunman killed Miami-Dade detectives Amanda Haworth and Roger Castillo. At their memorial, Loftus delivered a remarkable speech, urging his officers to unite in a greater battle between good and evil.

“The words he said inspired people across the country,” said Miami-Dade Officer Ryan Cowart. “He’s just very personable, and it’s rare to see that in the upper echelon of these big departments.”

Loftus also oversaw the department through tense contract negations between the police union and county administration. A new contract, struck in early December, slashed certain incentive pay and overtime costs for officers while imposing fees for take-home cars and increasing contributions to healthcare costs.

Despite the cuts, Loftus remained a popular figure, even with the police union, which sometimes butted heads with the director.

“I’m speechless,” said Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association President John Rivera. “This is an iconic figure in the community and this leaves a gaping hole in the department at a time when morale is at its lowest.”

Miami Herald staff writers Patricia Mazzei and Charles Rabin contributed to this report.