MIAMI – Police Chief Spencer Preston had lots of plans for his future. He was the son of a funeral director and by age 11, he was already digging graves with a pick and shovel. He learned a lot from his father about work ethics. “He didn’t believe in handing you anything. You had to work for it,” Preston said. He drew an important conclusion from his work with his father. “I didn’t want to be a funeral director,” he said. High school saw him excel in track and as a football running back. His track team of 12 students competed at the state level, “and we won everything,” he said. Preston made plans to go to medical school so he could work as an autopsy technician. “In my wildest dreams, I never wanted to be a police officer,” he said. Meanwhile Preston had a friend on the Phoenix Police force.” He bugged me for six months,” he recalled. Finally, on a fateful Friday in 1971, he agreed to do a ride along with his friend. “That Monday I signed up and went to the academy. It was just a fluke,” he said. What followed was a rewarding career as a police officer. He spent a year as a street cop and then started volunteering for any detail that came along. There were only three things that he avoided; “I didn’t want to do canine because I didn’t like being bit. No helicopters because I don’t like heights. No motorcycle cop because you have to lay your bike down.” (One aspect of training to be a motorcycle cop was letting the bike fall while riding it.) While he was in Phoenix, he was the first gang officer on the force and he became the first school resource officer. Some of his experiences as a school resource officer were particularly memorable. “I can tell you a whole bunch of stories,” Preston said. On one occasion, a student brought some of her mother’s eye drops to school. They were the kind of drops the eye doctor uses to dilate pupils. A common side effect is that the person is temporarily unable to see.
Being a generous young lady, she not only used them herself while in school but shared them with her classmates. “Now you’ve got a bunch of blind kids in school,” Preston recalled. “You wouldn’t believe what they come up with.” In 1995, Preston was given the City of Phoenix excellence award for Community Based Policing. He went to Clifton to be Police Chief there for a while and retired in 2009.
He spent some time in Prescott but some life changes led him to take to the road again. Preston accepted a job as Lieutenant in Miami. He planned to stay for a year and then retire for real. That same fate that kept him out of the autopsy labs kept him in Miami for six years. He enjoyed the opportunity to work in the community again. “I like working with people. I like going to people’s houses,” he said.
When a position opened in Miami for Chief of Police, Preston hesitated. He had already been chief in another town. He was comfortable patrolling his small town. In 2015, fate stepped in again. He found himself taking the Police Chief’s oath in Miami. One of the differences Preston has encountered in Miami is the problem with juveniles getting themselves in trouble. In Clifton, there were more traffic than juvenile arrests. He said part of Miami’s juvenile problem stems from “juvenile parents trying to supervise juvenile children. The parents are pretty much juveniles themselves.” Another factor he pointed out is single parent families where the parent works and the kids come home to an empty house with no supervision. The Miami town council is currently considering a curfew in town, but the problem is determining what consequences violators will face.“There are kids here that we catch over and over again,” he said. “The parents refuse to come and get ‘em… Our only alternative is to let them go. It’s just a revolving door.” Preston believes much of the problem also stems from kids not having anything to do in Miami. The government wants to see prevention programs enacted but that costs more money than the smaller towns have. Grants are funneled to the larger cities and the small towns are left to try for the scraps. “Most of these small towns can’t afford to have programs,” he said. “There are all sorts of programs I’d love to do.” It was through one of those smaller grants that Miami was able to get funding for their new police cars. “Otherwise we’d still be driving around in 1990s cars,” he said. Community service is a popular suggestion for dealing with offending juveniles. “But the parents are already on it themselves so what do they do?” Preston asked. Despite all the challenges, Preston is happy about the opportunities he has had in law enforcement. “Right now, I’m just enjoying what I’m doing,” he said, “I like talking to people. I like being involved in stuff.”
Preston has a bit of advice for young police officers; “There’s life outside the police department,” he said. He pointed out that the high suicide rate among retired police officers is related to not having anything to do. “It’s important to have friends outside the police department in the outside community,” he said. Preston satisfies that need by playing senior league softball with the “Ponchos” out of Phoenix. He has 18 World Series rings he has earned with the team and they travel all over the country. He also has 25 grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren. As police chief, he would like to see more community involvement among his officers. “You need more community involvement because you can’t do it all by yourself,” he said. To the general public he said, “Everyone knows where I live. They know I’m open…If you need to call me, call me. I might be able to keep you from doing something stupid.”
“ I’ve never taken a job for money,” Preston said. “If I feel I can help, I’ll take it. I think your work should speak for itself. If you have to work for money, you’ve missed the big picture. All you see is the money and you’re missing everything else. You can’t focus on one thing. You have to focus on many things.”