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Orlando's new police chief made his mark through the ranks
[May 08, 2011]

Orlando's new police chief made his mark through the ranks

May 05, 2011 (The Orlando Sentinel - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- In July 2008, there were four murders at the crime-ridden Mercy Drive apartment complex formerly known as The Palms. Orlando Police Chief Val Demings wanted the killing to stop.

So she appointed Deputy Chief Paul Rooney to carry out "Operation Free Palms." What followed was a complete turnaround in the complex. Officers were stationed there full-time; problematic tenants were evicted; many of the 600 children were enrolled in afterschool activities. The killing stopped, and now, children play in the community park that was built as part of that mission.

Rooney's leadership, work ethic and vision are emblematic of that about-face.

Rooney, a 47-year-old University of South Florida graduate, was tapped this week to take the helm of Orlando Police Department on June 1. He will lead the 966-member department at a time of relative calm: Under Demings leadership, overall crime is down double-digits and the city has seen a significant decrease in murders and guns and drugs on the streets.

"It's a ship that's in tip-top shape," Rooney said, of the department's improvements since his predecessor took over in 2008. "It's on course, there are no waves. We know the focus and the mission." But Rooney is a pragmatist, and he knows that a weak economy will force him to do more with less.

He doesn't plan any immediate changes when he takes over the top cop job, and instead plans to continue with the initiatives Demings created, Rooney said. He wants to do more work on preventing domestic violence and slayings that plagued the department in 2010.

And since, like his predecessor, Rooney rose through the ranks in his 24 years at OPD, many of the rank and file are cheering his promotion.

"I've learned so much from that guy," said Cpt. John Mina, who first worked for Rooney in the training department. "He's very, very, very thorough, and early in my career he helped me better prepare to do my job." Coin toss led him to Florida Rooney was raised in upstate New York, the sixth of seven children. He had plenty of hand-me-downs and remembers playing outdoors until he was called home for dinner.

Every night, his large family gathered around the dining table and said grace before eating his mother's home-cooked meal.

Rooney's oldest sister, Lea Miller, recalled how her brother as a child "had his own language," a speech impediment that speech therapy helped him combat. He demonstrated generosity as child by pouring his mother coffee while they watched the children's show "Captain Kangaroo" together.

"He was always very intelligent, he still is," said Miller, of Glenmont, N.Y. "He's always had good common sense, is very bright and extremely confident." Rooney grew up in a devout Catholic family where his uncle and aunt on his father's side were a priest and a nun. He attended Catholic school until his senior year, when he transferred to Albany High School, and graduated in 1982 in the top 20 percent of his class.

As a teen, Rooney watched the police show, "Adam-12", and was fascinated with the work of fictional Los Angeles police officers Pete Malloy and Jim Reed.

"I loved that show," Rooney said, adding that he once got the autograph of actor Kent McCord, who played Officer Reed. "I knew right then that's what I wanted to do. I never changed course." He earned an associate's degree in Criminal Justice from Hudson Valley Community College in 1984.

A coin toss led him to Florida.

Rooney and a buddy were trying to decide whether to attend college in Buffalo, N.Y. or travel to "sunny Tampa." The coin landed on the side denoting Tampa.

So at 19, he packed a U-Haul and moved 1,200 miles from home.

He graduated from USF in 1986 with a Criminal Justice degree. With such a large family to support, his parents weren't able to help him financially.

Rooney managed the midnight shift at a Tampa convenience store to work himself through school. He even spent a brief stint as a baker at the Wildwood Restaurant in Tampa.

"I didn't know what I was doing, but I learned," Rooney said. "I knew I had to get through college." An internship at the Tampa Police Department turned into a job offer. But he turned it down, heading east toward Orlando.

In 1986, he was hired on at OPD and paid an annual salary of $17,771.

Six-months later he married his wife, Donna. They live in the Seminole County part of Apopka and have two daughters, 19-year-old Florida Atlantic student Courtney, and Alexis, a junior at Lake Brantley High School.

Being a police officer and heading the SWAT team for 16 years meant there were many missed anniversaries, holidays and once, he even missed his daughter's birthday party.

Throughout it, his wife has been a steady source of support.

"She is my co-pilot," Rooney said. "I wouldn't be where I am today without her." When he's not working, Rooney jogs between 12 and 20 miles a week and likes bicycling on the weekends. He recently sold his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. And he always attends the 7:30 a.m. Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Apopka.

Rooney volunteers with the American Heart Association, the Relay for Life and works with Army veterans to help them make a smooth transition to civilian life.

Climbed the ranks A day after the announcement that he would be chief, Rooney sat behind a mahogany desk on the 3rd floor of police headquarters on Hughey Avenue. Nothing is in the in- or out-basket and his desktop is free from clutter.

"I can't leave if there is something left to be done," he said.

Rooney has climbed the ranks in the last quarter century: A member of the SWAT team; commander at Orlando International Airport's police division; commander of the Professional Standards Division where he was responsible for Internal Affairs, Planning and Evaluation, Crime Analysis and Fiscal Management.

In 2008, Rooney became Deputy Chief, taking over the Patrol Service Bureau where he manages 400 sworn and 32 civilian employees.

Cpt. Mina described Rooney as a straight-shooter. Officers know what to expect from him and where they stand with him. Rooney doesn't back down from a challenging situation, but faces it head-on.

"He likes to be direct," Mina said. "He likes to be honest and up-front. He makes a decision and sticks to it." Long-time friend and comrade, Capt. Jeff O'Dell, is proud of his friend's rise to the top spot.

"As a friend, I can't say anything bad about him," O'Dell said. "He's fantastic and very loyal." The most awkward moment the two faced in their friendship was when Rooney changed from being a colleague to O'Dell's boss on the SWAT team.

"We kind of came up through the ranks together," O'Dell said. "We'd never been in that role." Rooney demonstrated the depth of their friendship when O'Dell went to him with personal problem. Instead of just listening, Rooney took action and brought in a 'self-help' book to find a solution to the problem, O'Dell said. It was a testament to how much he cares about people.

Soon, Rooney will move next door to the Chief's office and his portrait will be added to the chief's wall near the third-floor elevators.

"It's an unbelievable dream come true -- an honor," Rooney said. "Word's can't describe how I felt, but I hope that my actions will show it." [email protected] or 407-420-5620.

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