Retiring Orlando police chief reflects on legacy, hints at run for public office

Orlando Rolon recounted his 30-year career in law enforcement

As Orlando’s first Hispanic police chief prepares to retire later this year, the 30-year agency veteran said he’s considering a run for public office.

ORLANDO, Fla. – As Orlando’s first Hispanic police chief prepares to retire later this year, the 30-year agency veteran said he’s considering a run for public office.

“I’m not ruling anything out,” said Orlando Rolon, who will leave the department in August after serving nearly four years as chief. “I’ve had individuals suggest to me — and suggest to my wife and me — that maybe even both of us consider public service as an elected official.”

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Rolon noted that several former Orlando police chiefs later served in elected office, including Congresswoman Val Demings, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings and Orange County Sheriff John Mina.

“It needs to be a strong message from the good Lord that comes to my wife, and then, through her, the message is delivered to me as to what I will do next,” Rolon said. “It’ll be a family decision.”

Rolon began his law enforcement career at OPD in 1992 after a short stint in the construction industry.

On his very first day, he handcuffed a woman and took her to jail for driving on a suspended license.

“As a rookie cop, you think you have to be by the book,” Rolon said. “At the time, when you had a suspended license, it was an arrestable offense. I arrested her on her birthday. I felt so bad. The poor thing. It was an awful feeling. But I thought, ‘I’m supposed to do this.’ Then, you quickly learn through your career that there is always room for discretion. Discretion is so important in the law enforcement profession.”

Decades later, Rolon and his fellow officers responded to Pulse nightclub where a gunman killed 49 people.

“That, I think, is a defining moment for the Orlando Police Department,” Rolon said. “How we responded to that situation — not only before the incident but afterward — deserves a lot of credit for the way everyone handled themselves and the needs of those affected.”

For Rolon, the biggest challenges were yet to come when, as police chief, he would lead the agency through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were seeing many people losing their lives as a result of COVID, and there was no vaccine,” Rolon said. “Yet we were telling our officers, ‘You will still go out there knowing that the virus is a threat.’ That was hard.”

Around the same time, demonstrations erupted nationwide in the wake of George Floyd’s death while being detained by Minneapolis police officers.

“When we had the social unrest in our city, we were wondering, ‘Why is this happening in the City of Orlando?’ It was because people wanted to be heard,” Rolon said. “People were concerned about the law enforcement profession.”

While Rolon believes the vast work of law enforcement is honorable, he also recognized the community’s response.

“I think a lot of great officers have suffered as a result of the unjust actions of a few, unfortunately,” said Rolon. “I think what we have got to do, not only as a profession but as a nation, is start looking at ways where we can work together for a better future for all and address what is it that we can do to prevent and make sure that the mistakes of the past are never repeated.”

When Rolon departs the agency in August, he will be replaced by Deputy Chief Eric Smith.

“He will do great,” Rolon said. “When you are leading a law enforcement agency, the importance of addressing crime, of course, is a priority. But equally as important is building relationships and maintaining the trust that our citizens give us to serve and protect our community.”

As Rolon prepares to leave OPD, he expressed pride in the agency.

“I just feel blessed that I had a great team to work with, and we were able to accomplish a lot,” Rolon said. “During a time when we were also facing so many challenges with COVID and the social unrest, we still stayed focused in addressing other needs. And we accomplished that.”

About the Authors:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades.

Anthony, a graduate of the University of Florida, joined in April 2022.