News | November 08, 2022

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Community policing is a passion for criminal justice alum

As overseer of the Community Relations Unit in the Fort Myers Police Department, Sgt. Gilberto Benitez takes special pride in making an impact in the community that shaped his life.

photo shows fgcu alumnus
Sgt. Gilberto Benitez was featured on the side of a bus. Photo submitted.

“My passion has always been to develop a positive relationship with the community so the citizens understand law enforcement is only here to help,” said Benitez, who graduated from Florida Gulf Coast University in 2011 with a degree in criminal justice after attending Fort Myers and Estero high schools. “I also wanted to help people within the community I grew up in. Being a role model was very important to me.”

After being promoted to sergeant and his new role about a year ago, Benitez believes he has an even greater chance to impact juveniles in a positive way every day. “When the opportunity came to develop a unit to specifically address issues that would benefit the community beyond calls for service, I was blessed to transition,” he said.

In the FMPD, Community Relations encompasses the School Resource Officer Program, public housing, homeless outreach units, community relations officers, the Police Athletic League, the Grampa Kops program and other outreach initiatives. These are the types of programs that help ease tensions between law enforcement and residents.

A former high-school basketball player at Estero, Benitez believes in the importance sports can play in childhood development as a way of connecting. “I’ve always felt like I could relate to the younger generation through sports and life experiences,” he said.  “Plus, I wanted to show that you could come from a community that had its issues and still be successful.”

photo of FGCU alum and wife
FGCU alum Gilberto Benitez’s wife, Casey, is now pursuing a psychology degree at the university.

Working toward a career in law enforcement was not how Benitez started his journey at FGCU. He began as a history major with the idea of becoming a teacher. But Benitez’s fascination for watching crime documentaries began to grow. The idea of interrogation and breaking down a criminal’s psyche appealed to him. He changed his major to criminal justice.

“The art of getting inside of a criminal’s mind and understanding their logic really intrigued me,” Benitez said. “I wanted my mom to have someone in the family with a degree, and doing my internship with the Cape Coral Police Department combined with taking criminal justice classes, I just became fascinated with it all.”

Since graduating in 2011, Benitez has made a mark with the FMPD. He was recognized and awarded for his compassionate service when a video of him helping a disadvantaged person get through a lightning storm went national in 2014. He also served as a hostage negotiator for eight years with “several successful incidents.”

Sgt. Ryan Maldonado has worked with Benitez for six years and saw his growth from patrol officer to sergeant. “Working alongside Sgt. Benitez has always been easy. He has never allowed the stressors associated with being a police officer to change his personality or overall happiness,” Maldonado said.

Working 12-hour shifts can be stressful, especially in law enforcement, but a “day in the life with Sgt. Benitez — even prior to being promoted to sergeant — would be filled with laughter, cracking jokes, while simultaneously handling critical incidents,” Maldonado said.

The uncertainty of police work can be nerve-racking not only for officers, but also for their families. Casey Benitez, who recently returned to college to pursue a psychology degree at FGCU as a junior, is the sergeant’s wife of 13 years and mother of their three boys. “The supporting role of a police wife was very taxing the first few years,” she said. “Lots of sleepless and lonely nights.”

After working road and street patrol for almost five years, Benitez spent two years as a community police coordinator. During that time — with the assistance of his partner, Sgt. John Price — numbers of burglaries, auto thefts and robberies declined in Benitez’s assigned territory. Being a liaison officer in a permanent location enabled Benitez to develop positive relationships with business owners, nonprofit groups, churches, code enforcement officers and residents.

Photo shows FGCU alumnus
Sgt. Gilberto oversees the Community Relations Unit in the Fort Myers Police Department.

Driven by his love for family, Benitez knows the importance of being a role model for his three boys. “Family time is the best time,” he said. “Any time I get with my family is a blessing, so I cherish all of it.”

His wife says Benitez handles work-life balance well. “He has the ability to leave work at work. When he’s home, he’s present in every moment,” Casey Benitez said. “He’s constantly trying to find ways to make memories with our boys. He’s aware of the time he has lost [with the family] because of his job, and it tortures him. Every night, no matter the time, he goes into our boys’ room to check on them and kiss them once more before he sleeps.”

That’s how a history-student-turned-criminal-justice graduate goes about the business of being a community police sergeant, husband and father. He credits FGCU for helping him make a difference and giving him the freedom to change his destiny.

“Don’t follow anyone’s path – create your own,” Benitez said. “Be a pioneer in whatever you do.  Appreciate good people and pray for the troubled ones. We’re all on borrowed time, so go out and seize the day.  Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will. So don’t just talk about your goals, be about your goals and practice what you preach.”

– Jonathan Pressley is a senior communication major who’s part of an internship program with FGCU Marketing & Communications.