Iron John

In five years PBA boss John Rivera has transformed his police union into a major political force

On Kaplan's behalf, Rivera picked a fight with one of the most formidable foes of shady politicians: the assistant Dade state attorney in charge of public corruption, Joe Centorino. At the time, Centorino was investigating Kaplan for official misconduct and falsifying a mortgage application -- both felonies. Rivera publicly called Centorino's investigation politically motivated. Then he published a copy of Centorino's 1986 mortgage application in Heat. "Did Assistant State Attorney Joe Centorino break the law by committing mortgage fraud?" blared the headline. Centorino's alleged fraud? He claimed to have been employed in the State Attorney's Office before starting work there. That issue was never questioned before Rivera brought it up. (The state attorney later agreed not to pursue mortgage fraud charges against Kaplan as part of a plea deal).

Rivera contends Centorino "has screwed with police officers throughout the years."

The irony of the situation -- cops attacking a prosecutor for going after slippery politicians -- doesn't amuse Centorino. "It was coming completely from left field. There was no rhyme or reason to it," the prosecutor says. "What I did to Kaplan had nothing to do with the PBA or police officers. It just shows that the PBA leadership is following a political agenda, not a law enforcement agenda."

When Kaplan resigned, he held a press conference. Standing behind him was Rivera. The FOP's Rodriguez, watching on TV, was reminded of then-Miami City Commissioner Humberto Hernandez's request for FOP endorsement in 1997. Hernandez was under indictment for bank fraud and money laundering at the time. "I told him flat out, 'You've got charges pending against you. I can't endorse you,'" Rodriguez says.

Rivera's street-fighting political style has origins in his impoverished childhood in Manhattan's Washington Heights. His Puerto Rican father was a short-order cook in a deli and his Cuban-American mother was a seamstress. When Rivera was twelve the family moved to Miami because the weather was better for his brother Peter's severe allergies. The tactics for self-preservation Rivera learned in Washington Heights came in handy in northwest Dade, near Hialeah, where the family moved. Though Rivera says he despises violence, he hates bullies even more. Twice he was suspended from school for fighting, both times for defending a schoolmate.

Rivera did not intend to become a police officer. When he was thirteen, his father died in a car crash. To support the family, both boys found work. They scrubbed dishes, pumped gas, and did odd jobs to help the family. College was out of the question. After John graduated from Hialeah/Miami Lakes High School, he worked in construction and manned a hot dog stand at a bingo hall on Friday night. It was at that job he met an Opa-locka reserve officer who recommended police work.

Rivera worked as a Metro-Dade reserve officer from 1975 until 1978, then joined the force full-time. He soon became a hero. His first year on the job, Rivera ran into a burning building and ushered out some elderly residents. A year later he was nearly trapped in a burning building in Aventura and was treated at a hospital for smoke inhalation. "I loved it, I really loved that stuff," he says wistfully. His personnel file is stuffed with 63 commendations: for the fire rescues, for work investigating and arresting an extortionist, for capturing four car thieves while they dismantled a car, for helping to close nineteen houses of prostitution.

On January 3, 1983, as Rivera and some colleagues headed home after work in a caravan of several cars, one of the cops spotted an armed robbery in progress. The robbers took off. The officers gave chase on foot. The man Rivera was pursuing turned and pointed a gun at him. Rivera took cover; when the man turned a second time and pointed his gun, Rivera fired and hit him. The suspect escaped but later died in the emergency room. Internal investigators found the shooting justified.

Two aspects of Rivera's career have especially influenced his agenda as union boss. First are the injuries. Smoke inhalation, sprained wrists, knees scuffed while tackling subjects, a gunshot wound in his foot from a ricocheting bullet -- Rivera has been hurt on the job at least ten times. He says the wounds helped him to understand the hazards his comrades face. Then there are the less-common perils. One evening in April 1990, as Rivera and several other officers searched for a robbery suspect in the Washington Park area of North Miami Beach, gunshots sounded nearby. Rivera rushed over. A man had fired at Ofcr. Joseph Martin after Martin stopped a suspicious car. Now the officer lay wounded in the street, shot in the throat. Rivera and two others accompanied Martin to a helicopter. "He was in pretty bad shape," Rivera says, his voice falling to a husky croak. He later died. That event, he says, made him "obsessed" with the rights of slain officers' families: "You could say I'm a fanatic about police officers' rights."

Rivera became one of the first Hispanics to rise through the ranks of the Metro-Dade force. After one year and four months on the job, he was promoted to the detective division. As the only Spanish-speaker in the northeast district, he was in a pivotal position when the Mariel boatlift started in 1980, bringing thousands of refugees to Miami. Metro-Dade swiftly assembled a task force to concentrate on the Marielitos. Rivera was an obvious choice for that force. He developed a specialized knowledge of the immigrants' criminal networks. His knowledge was so valuable that he was later chosen to give seminars about the behavior of Mariel immigrants to departments as far away as Pennsylvania.

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