A three-time officer of the year, Gonzalez reflects on a career in public service.
By Dan Campana
After nearly 30 years as a police officer with the Eastlake Police Department in Ohio, Det. Lt. Robert Gonzalez doesn’t talk about his career or law enforcement in general like someone on the cusp of retirement.
He’s worn many hats and endured challenges – including budget cuts that reduced staff by nearly half –over the years, but reflects on it all with the same enthusiasm for policing he felt as child who enjoyed cop shows in which the good guys always won and, later, as an 18-year-old eager to volunteer with the Cleveland Police Auxiliary Unit.
“I tried my hand at it and became even more hooked after my first road tour as an uniformed civilian in a marked unit acting as the eyes and ears of the police department,” Gonzalez recalled. “It was these tours of duty that cemented my desire even more and put me on the path to become a regular officer.”
Before that happened, Gonzalez spent several years as a part-time firefighter/EMT, but his heart called him back to police work.
“Even though I enjoyed being a firefighter, I wanted to return to law enforcement since I felt I could do the most good for the community by being proactive versus the more reactive position of firefighting,” he said.
Gonzalez applied with different agencies and eventually landed a job with Eastlake, although he didn’t always limit himself to the department he’s called home for three decades. While a patrolman, Gonzalez also worked in a part-time firefighter/EMT role for a nearby community. He resigned that job and took a part-time detective position with the Timberlake Police Department. He rose to become a lieutenant there while also making rank in Eastlake where he eventually put all his time and energy because of increased responsibilities.
“Overall, I’ve had experience with three different police departments and two fire departments … whew!” Gonzalez said of his 36 ½ years in public service.
But it started with Gonzalez watching Dragnet and Hawaii Five-O – “Now I’m dating myself,” he joked – when he was young. His parents also taught him to respect the police. One day, Gonzalez and his father went for a tour of a new police precinct building which opened in their neighborhood.
“I became hooked after seeing the police cars and officers in uniform. As a 7-year-old kid, this stuff was really exciting to see,” Gonzalez said. “I wanted to be the person who helped people and stood up against those persons who, in my estimation at that time, were bad.”
He did just that. With Eastlake, Gonzalez has risen through the ranks and was selected by his colleagues to receive the department’s Officer of the Year award three times:
- After witnessing a fatal drunken driving crash as a firefighter, Gonzalez made it his mission as a police officer to get intoxicated motorists off the roads. “I had so many arrests in one year’s time that it began to have a noticeable impact on our community.”
- For his response to a 2010 incident when he was the first officer on the scene with an armed man who barricaded himself inside his house. Gonzalez was able to evacuate the man’s family and attempted to de-escalate the situation. However, the man emerged from a bedroom with a shotgun pointed at Gonzalez, who shot and wounded the man to end the threat. “The male did survive and later apologized to me for his actions along with saying he was glad I did not kill him.”
- And this year for his collective work to establish a countywide traffic crash reconstruction team, his efforts as a hostage negotiator with the county’s emergency response team and his contributions as part of the U.S. Marshal’s Northern Ohio Violent Fugitive Task Force. Additionally, he also was honored for his actions to pursue and capture a group of serial robbery suspects.
He calls the awards humbling and an honor because “it was my fellow peers and officers that nominated me, and that makes me even more appreciative of it.”
“I did not realize my work had that much of an impact on those I worked with,” Gonzalez added.
As a leader and a mentor, Gonzalez tells officers to be cautious against becoming cynical, to keep learning and remain physically and mentally fit – especially as years go by because you get older, but the “bad guys never seem to age.”
“I always try to encourage the guys and remind them that while our personnel numbers have decreased, crime has not stopped and will only increase if we don’t remain proactive regardless of the negativity we are branded with by some of the public,” he said.
The benefit of hindsight and experience hasn’t changed Gonzalez much from the eager teenager just looking to get on the force somewhere.
“The badge has always meant the same to me as when I first started. It was a calling in life for me and it meant that I had the sworn ability to help others and the responsibility to serve my fellow man,” Gonzalez said. “Wearing the badge represents honor, truth and justice, but I also wear it with integrity and respect.
“While there are some members of the public who have made it harder for police officers to wear the badge, we as police cannot be discouraged and must continue to do what is right for society and honor both our oath to serve and the badge that our oath represents,” the married father of three added.
Read the entire 50 Badges series here.