At an age when many police officers start thinking about retirement, Key West Police officer Leo Hernandez joined the local force.

At age 45, Hernandez was actually the second-oldest cadet in the police academy in 2019. Key West Police officer Craig Wynn was a few years older, Hernandez said.

“They wanted us to succeed,” Hernandez said of the other and much younger cadets. “It was very physically straining. I have a lot of experience in martial arts and kick boxing, but it still hurt. It was painful, but it was worth every drop of pain.”

The pain paid off. In February, Police Chief Sean Brandenberg named Hernandez as the department’s Officer of the Year for 2020.

Soon after Hernandez’ field training, the COVID-19 pandemic struck the Florida Keys and Key West. Throughout the year, when it became necessary for police officers to enforce the mandatory mask mandate, Hernandez was the first to volunteer to undertake the task on Duval Street, according to Key West police.

“Officer Hernandez comes to work every day with a positive attitude,” Chief Brandenburg said when he awarded Hernandez the Officer of the Year honor. “He continuously motivates other officers with his contagiously positive attitude.”

Hernandez always wanted to be in law enforcement, but he married young and his life took another course in his early adulthood, he said.

“I always wanted to be in the public service arena,” Hernandez said. “I always liked the idea of protecting and serving. I also always wanted to give back to my community.”

Hernandez was born in the Dominican Republic in 1975 and he and his family immigrated to Miami when he was 14. Hernandez was a health inspector for years and often vacationed in Key West, he said. He eventually transferred to Key West for work.

“I always wanted to come here,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez changed jobs and started with the City of Key West in November of 2011, working in the Code Compliance Department. He had a distinguished and unblemished career spanning roughly eight years working as a code officer before becoming a police officer.

During this time, he became well known in the Key West community, not only for his professionalism but also his willingness to help people, according to city officials.

“I signed up for a job that is challenging, not demanding,” Hernandez said. “There is a difference. This job is very challenging, but also very rewarding.”

Officer Hernandez’s experience in code department makes him a wealth of information to his fellow officers, Capt. JR Torres said.

“He displays all of the positive attributes one could ask for in a police officer. He is intelligent, fair, supportive, caring, empathetic, knowledgeable, patient, on time and overall a great worker,” Torres said.

“He has proven invaluable to this city and to the department,” Chief Brandenburg added.

Hernandez experienced an incredible loss right after graduating from police academy, when his wife, Lisa, died of cancer. They had been together for 27 years.

“She was always one of the ones who pushed me,” he said. “I knew I could never let her down or myself.”