Charles Otero loved everything about Tampa, his family said — even if the city didn’t always love him back.
The child of Hispanic immigrants, Mr. Otero became Tampa’s first Hispanic chief of police in 1974 and, after retiring in 1979, worked as the Hillsborough County School District’s security supervisor for another 12 years.
Yet in his retirement, local newspapers dubbed Mr. Otero “one of the most beleaguered chiefs in the Tampa Police Department’s history,” a man whose 33 years with the agency ended in controversy and inquiries into claims of corruption, in-fighting and ties to organized crime.
Mr. Otero never let headlines define the way he lived, his family said.
He died in his West Tampa home April 8 at 95. He is survived by his two sons, four grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and his wife of 73 years, Margaret Fernandez.
“I think he helped me understand the importance of taking pride in whatever station in life you’re in,” his granddaughter, Amy Otero said. “If you have an opportunity, take it and do everything you do to the fullest and be present to fully experience the life you’ve been given.”
Mr. Otero seemed to carry that philosophy from his earliest memories of growing up in West Tampa.
The son of a Puerto Rican cigar roller, Otero spent his childhood sweeping up cigar factories in Ybor City and selling fruit out of rusted pickup trucks. Yet his memories of long, hot workdays were always happy ones, his children and grandchildren say.
Mr. Otero never dreamed of becoming a cop when he was a boy, they said. He once thought he would have made a good lawyer, and he always excelled in his studies, graduating near the top of his class at Jefferson High School and the University of Tampa.
But at the start of World War II, he saw an opportunity to better his family’s life, Amy Otero said. When he was only 17, Mr. Otero lied about his age and enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
According to family legend, he met Margaret Fernandez at a dance in Ybor City in the days before he enlisted. She was babysitting her little sister when Mr. Otero spotted her across the dance floor and, in an instant, fell in love, Amy Otero said. It wasn’t until the dance was over that he learned she was only 16. Still, Mr. Otero asked for her phone number before he left and drilled it into memory during his three years abroad.
He never called until he returned, when Fernandez had grown old enough to date, Amy Otero said.
Fernandez, now 92, said Mr. Otero was the only man she ever loved.
“He’s always been my boyfriend,” Fernandez said. “I was just a young girl when I met him, and he was always the one. He’s always been the boy for me.”
The tenacity, perseverance and dedication that won Fernandez’s heart is also what set Mr. Otero apart from the other young officers at the Tampa Police Department, where he was hired as a patrolman in 1947.
Mr. Otero quickly rose through the ranks and went on to head the personnel and training division, where he took pride in revamping the department’s curricula and standards so thoroughly they were eventually adopted by the Florida Police Standard Board in Tallahassee, which sets standards for law enforcement agencies in the state.
Mr. Otero went on to develop the first Police Academy in Tampa and created a first-of-its-kind partnership program with the University of Tampa and St. Petersburg Junior College that allowed officers to pursue a college degree while training to join the force. Those efforts saw the average educational level of the Tampa police officers go up from 11th grade in 1957 to 1.3 years of college in 1962.
“We’re sad to hear about the passing of Chief Otero,” current Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan said. “He was a great man of character and a trail blazer in our community.”
In 1974, when Otero was tapped to become chief of police, Tampa was becoming better known for organized crime and police corruption than its cigar factories and citrus farms.
In his five years as chief, Otero survived a number of internal affairs investigations and a grand jury probe into possible police corruption and misuse of police authority. He would fire police officers for failing to meet standards only to see them reinstated in appeals to the city’s civil service board.
He faced criticism from news organizations and his own department when, in 1975, tight budgets left him a tough choice: beef up his diminished street patrols or start a program placing officers in schools. He chose the schools and helped create the School Resource Officer program. He also secured free psychiatric counseling for police officers with marital and alcohol problems.
Unlike his predecessors, Chief Otero was seen as charming and affable, always available to officers on the beat. He was often in the halls and squad rooms of the police station. He was often found in the back of early morning roll-calls, giving a pep talk to internal affairs or making small talk with his long-haired narcotics officers.
“He was considered controversial because he had a reputation for raising the standard of police behavior and conduct,” Amy Otero said. “Although in all my years growing up, whenever he would take me to the beach to watch the sunset or out to a nice dinner, I never met a cop who knew him who didn’t like him or respect him.”
Charles Angel Otero
Born: Oct. 21, 1925
Died: April 8, 2021
Survivors: Wife, Margaret Fernandez Otero; sons Charles Jr. Otero (Carolyn) and Ken Otero (Frances); sisters Hilda Delzer and Alice Mason; grandchildren Lisa Sullivan, Amy Otero, Kenny Otero and Lauren Otero; great-grandchildren Daniel, Zack, Angel, Hektor, Carlie, Maya and Bella.
Visitation will be 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Friday, followed by a funeral 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. at Blount and Curry Funeral Home, 3207 W Bearss Ave. in Tampa.
A graveside service will follow 1 p.m to 1:30 p.m. at Centro Asturiano Memorial Park Cemetery, 5400 E. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Tampa.