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At a hair under 4 feet 11, police officer holds his own

Police Officer Michael Ruiz speaks to an attendant at a youth detox center. Ruiz, 38, has been on the Tampa force for 15 years.

KAINAZ AMARIA | Times

Police Officer Michael Ruiz speaks to an attendant at a youth detox center. Ruiz, 38, has been on the Tampa force for 15 years.

TAMPA

When the Tampa Police Department needs a touch of compassion, someone who can roll into any situation and defuse it with a calm, tolerant demeanor, they know just the guy.

He's like a superhero of sorts, a man of many powers. His specialty is children, especially those who have been abused, as he has a knack for dealing with them, literally, eye to eye. His mere presence can calm a thrashing, fighting criminal. Thugs just don't feel like taking a punch when they see him.

His supervisor says he's great for crawling through small windows or tossing on roofs or over fences. He can do it all, it seems ... except maybe put you in a standing headlock. Or dunk a basketball.

Go ahead and make a wisecrack. Officer Mike Ruiz, not quite 4 feet 11, has pretty much heard it all.

For someone who stopped growing in middle school, "Mikey" (as some of his friends and colleagues call him) picked a tough job. Fighting the bad guys isn't always easy when you're half their size.

But by the time he joined the Police Department 15 years ago, Ruiz, now 38, had become used to proving people wrong.

He was among the smallest kids at Robinson High School, where he wrestled for three years. His parents sent him to the doctor for a series of tests to find out why he wasn't growing, but his doctor determined it was genetics. (Ruiz also had a small uncle.) He doesn't have dwarfism, which is characterized by short limbs and other physical traits. He's just short.

After high school, Ruiz wasn't sure what he wanted to do for a living. He spent a couple years in the Army, deflecting the taunting of his supervisors. When he got out, a police officer friend of his suggested he try law enforcement.

He spent a few years as a reserve officer when Tampa police had a hiring freeze. It was the only time he wondered if his size was holding him back. A veteran police officer once told him to think about another line of work as Ruiz applied to 37 law enforcement agencies around the state. But Ruiz, who now lives in Brooksville near the Pasco County border, held strong to something his mother once told him.

"Consider the source," she said.

It's his mantra when anyone says something unkind, and really, his approach to people in general.

Ruiz, who now works out of District 2 headquarters near Busch Gardens, has a policy to "be the nicest guy in the world to you" until he has a reason to treat you otherwise. Everyone is a ma'am or a sir. Everyone deserves to tell his side of the story.

"Interestingly, (his size has) caused him to be a really good communicator," said Sgt. Mark Delage, Ruiz's supervisor. "He's learned a lot of different techniques to make up for his lack of height and, a lot of times, the big bad guys don't feel as threatened by him as they would by someone my size (5-9). I probably don't speak to people as compassionately as he does."

Sometimes killing with kindness doesn't do the trick. That's when having a gun, Taser, baton and handcuffs — the utility belt, as Ruiz calls it — comes in handy.

"I may not be as big as the bad guys, but when it's time to go to jail, it's time to go to jail," Ruiz said.

"This," he said, pointing to his utility belt, "makes me as big as I need to be."

Fighting crime, ignoring insults

Edward Vance Davis Jr. has called on Officer Ruiz a few times to fight crime in his neighborhood, near Waters Avenue and North Boulevard. Two years ago, Ruiz transferred from Robles Park and began patrolling that community and others north of Seminole Heights and Sulphur Springs. Davis remembers his first meeting with Ruiz after someone stole his son's handheld video game device.

"I remember thinking, 'How can he be a cop? He's so little,' " the 6-foot-1 Davis said. "My son's bigger than him, and my son's 12."

Davis barely notices Ruiz's size now.

"He's an excellent officer," he said. "This neighborhood used to be one of the quietest neighborhoods but got bad after people started stealing and drug dealing. When he started patrolling this area, things started getting back to normal."

His colleagues have noticed that criminals are less likely to attack or fight with Ruiz.

"There's not that challenge factor with him," Sgt. Delage said. "People who are prone to violent behavior, with that alpha personality, thrive on the challenge of taking on someone their size or bigger."

Still, Ruiz has gotten into his share of scuffles, like the time a 14-year-old girl attacked him early in his career, and when he got a concussion after trying to take down a relentless thief. (The girl was apprehended, and the thief wound up with a broken leg.) He has learned special techniques to physically restrain people larger than he.

But his most helpful techniques — by far — have nothing to do with strength or size.

The married father of two uses patience when an elementary school boy calls him a "midget." Rather than get offended, he just explains to the child the difference between himself and a midget — slang for someone with dwarfism, which he doesn't have.

He just laughs when a taunting neighborhood drunk calls him "kindergarten cop."

He ignores those who call out "Pee-wee" or "dwarf" or "Hellooooo down there."

His fellow officers clench their teeth or snap back at the perps, clearly bothered at the verbal attack on one of their own.

But for Ruiz, it's always the same response:

Consider the source.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3431.

At a hair under 4 feet 11, police officer holds his own 11/20/08 [Last modified: Saturday, November 22, 2008 1:21pm]
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