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Officer really has earned her badge

Published Sep. 1, 2005

Jennie Matera, a 5-foot-1 sparkplug, once wrestled a 300-pound burglar to the ground and relieved him of his weapons. Gun drawn, she has cornered a wife beater hiding in his shower. Another time, the 54-year-old grandmother faced down a crowd of rowdy teenagers in a mall parking lot until backup deputies arrived.

"I've always wanted to be a cop," said Matera, who lives in Country Place and walks a beat that includes the Citrus Park mall and the neighborhoods lining Sheldon Road. Her biggest client is Westchase.

Matera, a Brooklyn native, has been fascinated by law enforcement for most of her life. When she met her husband, John, he was a sheet metal worker, but she persuaded him to become a police officer.

And her son, also named John, went to college to train for a career in architecture before deciding to become a sheriff's deputy.

Matera herself earned the qualifications needed to land a job in law enforcement but was stymied by a hiring freeze in New York. So she got a job as a corrections officer, then worked as a 911 operator for the New York Police Department.

When the family moved to Tampa, she picked up every job she could that came with a badge. Matera served as a court clerk for four years, working in "smoker's court," where teenagers are brought up on underage smoking charges, and "doggie court," where people face animal cruelty and neglect charges.

But Matera wanted so badly to become a deputy that in 1996 she became a "reserve one" volunteer for the Sheriff's Office, meaning she was certified to be an officer but basically worked for free. She did that job for three years until she was finally hired full time in 1999.

"I absolutely am so fortunate to be hired in this department," Matera said. "I come to work smiling every day."

That's because even though Matera spends much of her time dealing with people on the wrong side of the law, she maintains an unassailable optimism about them.

"To me, it's a good feeling to be making a difference," Matera said, "even if it's a little thing like talking to someone you've just arrested and making them realize they need to change their life around. I know that every single person has some streak of goodness in them, and it's my challenge to find it."

In addition to her law enforcement jobs, Matera has owned a travel agency (she still books cruises on the side), and is a licensed hairstylist.

"I'm a people person," Matera said. "Being a hairdresser, you're almost like a psychiatrist. People tell you all their problems and they feel good when they leave. Everything I've ever done, I've dealt with people."

Those people skills will serve Matera well as the area's community resource officer, where her average day might include helping a lost child or giving directions to an elderly couple.

She handles the often niggling complaints from the neighbors in the well-heeled subdivisions with aplomb.

"How can you not have a good feeling about helping people?" Matera said. "Every day, you feel like you've accomplished something."

_ Logan D. Mabe can be reached at 269-5304 or at is overdrawn

Sheriff's Deputy Jennie Matera explains a crime report Wednesday to senior leasing consultant Lana Rosenfeld at the Westwood Reserve. "I know that every single person has some streak of goodness in them, and it's my challenge to find it," says the Brooklyn native and eternal optimist.