MERIDEN — Hector Cardona’s phone often rings at 2 a.m. Sometimes the caller is a parent distraught over a teenager who doesn’t return home. Sometimes it’s a family with someone in trouble.
“I talk with them and tell them how the system works,” Cardona said. “They say they feel more comfortable with me. I take the time when they have a problem, I put myself in their shoes.”
The city’s most recognizable police officer is retiring next week after 32 years. Although it might be strange seeing Cardona in civilian clothes, the cop with the award-winning mustache isn’t going away.
“It’s just how you treat people,” he said about his popularity. “I’ve dealt with generations of people. Now those kids I crossed (in traffic) are parents and grandparents. Sometimes I’ll be in my car and there will be two to three cars deep waiting to talk to me.”
Cardona, 59, was born in Aguada, Puerto Rico. He came to Meriden at age 7, and attended local schools. After graduation he worked as a “setup man” at New Departure-Hyatt Bearing Division, a local subsidiary of General Motors.
He applied to the Police Department in 1983. There were three Latino officers on the force and Cardona became a liaison between police and the growing Hispanic population.
“Over the years, Officer Cardona was often contacted while on and off duty to solve a particular issue,” Police Chief Jeffry Cossette said in a statement. “Hector would never refuse to help someone and he represents the highest qualities I look for in hiring a person for the position of police officer.”
Cardona and his wife Sarah raised three children who have successful careers. Hector Cardona Jr. is a detective sergeant. Miguel Cardona was a nationally-recognized principal at Hanover School before his recent promotion to an administrative job. Marisol Cardona is a social worker for an alternative education program and recently received her master’s degree.
While it can be difficult raising children in the same city where their father is a police officer, his children never had a problem, Cardona said. No matter how many late nights he worked, he always made sure to tuck his kids into bed.
“It’s important,” he said.
Cardona also instilled a dedication to community that he models and that his family continues to practice. He is the chairman of the annual Puerto Rican festival, which has grown to be one of the most popular in the state. He passed on his love of music by teaching his children how to play instruments. He also sings with the choir at St. Rose Church and the family has its own band with Sarah Cardona performing vocals. Marisol also sings.
The band performs for community and charity events, including a performance tonight at John Barry School for the Meriden-Wallingford Substance Abuse Council.
“Officer Cardona is one of the most service-oriented police officers that I have ever known,” Cossette said. “He is certainly one of the most popular. His service to the community has gone far above that of a regular police officer.”
In 2000, the department recognized that service, naming Cardona External Affairs Officer to help address public concerns.
During his career, he’s seen more diversity in the police department and the changes that go along with rapidly evolving technology.
“This is my second family and I love this department as much as I love the city,” Cardona said.
He’s also pleased to see more leaders emerging in the Hispanic community. In his retirement, he hopes to remain as a reserve officer, travel to Puerto Rico and possibly get involved in politics.
Cardona isn’t shy about expressing his opinion about a possible anti-nepotism policy in the city. He said a policy strictly prohibiting family members from working in the same department would have prevented his son from following in his footsteps and serving his hometown. He wonders if his grandson, now 13 and a police Explorer will be affected. If he had been an educator, a ban on family members working together might have made it impossible for Miguel Cardona to work in city schools.
“I’m for parents leading their kids to do the same thing they do,” he said.
But he does support a policy that prevents family members from reporting directly to one another.
“You don’t want someone to feel there was favoritism,” Cardona said. “Let another person supervise them.”
Cardona said the recent FBI investigation into the department left a black cloud, but employees who did nothing wrong had nothing to fear and shouldn’t have felt affected. He praised the officers in the department and said there is no way of controlling every officer’s behavior.
“I’m 100 percent positive the department doesn’t condone wrongdoing,” he said. “Every officer is their own person.”
He also expressed confidence that the community will regain trust in the department and enjoy the relationship it once shared with its members. He said the public needs to understand the dangers police officers face.
“It’s a job where we’re dealing with hundreds of different people,” he said. “You gotta keep your guard up or you could be a victim. There is a lot of good officers out there. Things will get back on a positive track and people will recognize we’re there to serve them.”
Cardona’s signature mustache wins him the affection of local children and adults who he often entertains by letting them touch his mustache and hear its alarm. He sets the alarm to prevent anyone from cutting it, and says his mustache is insured. Last year, he won a national award for his mustache in a Facebook contest.
Cardona is also known for a kind word or joke, said co-worker Lt. Salvatore Nesci, adding that he has shepherded and trained many officers.
“We’re going to miss Hector dearly,” Nesci said. “I’ve been telling him for many weeks he can stay. It’s actually going to be very strange not to see Hector in the police department. He has a way of bringing a smile to my face.”