cheryl-cason_web.jpgOPA-LOCKA — Newly appointed Opa-locka Police Chief Cheryl Cason recalls a pivotal moment early in her career.

The late 1980s scene involved a robbery suspect and a patchwork of back alleys that twisted and curved through some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods.

Cason was a rookie cop at the time, but she was the closest officer to the scene when the call came. She spotted him in an instant, and gave chase. When their eyes met, she realized she knew him; knew his mother as well.

She pulled her gun and ordered him to freeze.

But a desperate man will do anything to avoid jail, Cason said. He slapped her gun to the side and kept running.

To put it bluntly, Cason was pissed.

“I just knew he was going to stop, but he just pushed my gun away and kept running,’’ she said. “I chased him. Grabbed him by the shirt.  He comes out of the shirt.  I had enough of this. I took my nightstick and knocked him on the shoulder. We tumble over.  I’m determined that he was just not going to get away today.  I grabbed him by his pants and cuffed him. His time was up.”

She’d caught the suspect. But her satisfaction was short-lived. She was so upset that back-up officers took such a long time to arrive that she considered handing in her resignation that very day.

“Twelve minutes to get to me? That is a very long time for no back-up to arrive,” she said.

But she stayed, determined to stick around long enough to see necessary improvements to the department.

Twenty-three years later, Cason, 52, of Opa-locka, who previously served as assistant chief, is in charge of the very department she was once so close to leaving.  Last month, she became the second black female officer to take the department’s reins, and is among a handful of black female officers across the country to lead a police department.

This is no easy assignment.

Opa-locka, after-all, is a city with dual distinctions.

It has the largest collection of Moorish architecture in the western hemisphere, and was incorporated in 1926 as an “Arabian Fantasy” based on the book 1001 Arabian Tales.

But at various points in its history, it has also had the most staggering crime rate per capita of any city in the country. A 2004 FBI Crime rate analysis noted the city’s violent crime rate was 3,809 for every 100,000 people – 6 times the national average of 596.

It’s even more difficult to tackle crime with a dwindling police force. By 2007, the department had shrunk from 50 officers to just 16.

The city soon became engulfed in departmental scandal with former Police Chief James Wright.  Multiple sexual harassment complaints were filed against Wright, who was eventually dismissed by then-City Manager Jannie Beverly in January 2008.

Wright maintained that his firing was politically motivated. The city gave no official explanation.

Morale in the city’s police department was at an all-time low, Cason and Vice Mayor Myra Taylor acknowledged recently.

“We’ve survived all that. He did his time and we’ve moved on,’’ Taylor said of Wright’s abrupt departure.

“Chief Cason has been the shoulder many of those officers cried on during those years,’’  Taylor said. “She’s experienced the instability but she’s focused and understands the needs of the department. She’s homegrown and she’s the perfect choice for this job.’’

Indeed, things are turning around.

The city had 13 murders in 2008. That number dropped to three in 2009.

The police force has grown. There are now 46 officers on the rolls, Cason said.

Her days of chasing criminals in back alleys are over. These days, she is often behind a mammoth mahogany desk in a cavernous office at police headquarters, plotting ways to get more funding to place more cops on the streets and to get the best equipment into the hands of those officers.

There are dozens of plaques and photographs on the walls chronicling her years.
No one, not even Cason, could have envisioned this.

She was to say the least, a wayward child; angry at the world, her family, her

She was pregnant by age 16.

“I just didn’t care about anything,’’ she said.

It was her 10th grade economics teacher, Gussie Irvin, who forced her to confront her life and think about the future, Cason said.

“She told me, ‘You’re going to be a mommy, that baby needs to look up to you. That baby needs a strong person in his or her life.’”

“I never forgot what she said. She didn’t know she was talking to the city’s future police chief back then,’’ Cason said. “I had no idea this life could have been possible.”

Her Jan. 5 swearing in ceremony was especially poignant, Cason said. Irvin, all these years later, was seated in the audience.

Now married with four children, she’s proud to serve in this demanding role, she said.

“I’m a product of this city,’’ Cason said.  “And I want people to know that we are a community of history and of generations of families, of people who have lived here for 50 to 60 years.  My officers have had a lot to deal with, but those days are behind us.”

Cason added: “We sacrificed all those years to do the best we could, and we’ll keep doing that. It’s a challenge, but my goal is to make us the best and most respected police force in the state of Florida. No matter what.’’

Photo by Elgin Jones/SFT Staff. Cheryl Cason