Assistant Chief Bill Martinez's first assignment with the St. Paul police department was so sensitive only the mayor, police chief and a few others knew he was on the city's payroll.

Hired in 1987 to broker undercover narcotics sales during the crack epidemic, Martinez rented and wired an apartment on the city's West Side for audio and video. He met in secret with a city staffer to receive his pay in cash in order to protect his identity. He became so proficient that undercover agents from Minneapolis and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency once followed him, suspecting he was the criminal.

Martinez, who is Mexican-American, retired Friday from the department after nearly three decades, rising to become one of Chief Thomas Smith's top three advisers and the highest-ranking Latino law enforcement officer in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota chapter of the National Latino Peace Officers Association (NLPOA).

"He represents so many things," said St. Paul police officer Francisco Ortiz, vice president of the Minnesota chapter of the NLPOA. "He represents the culture. He represents a city that's really diverse. And it's not just for the Latinos — it's for any officer of color and women in this profession — just seeing him and seeing that he's been able to succeed in this profession is very inspiring."

Martinez, 54, is also the only St. Paul police officer of color in a department of about 600 who qualifies to apply for the chief's job, which is up for grabs this year.

Although he's applied for the job previously, he said he's ready to retire and spend time with his daughter, son-in-law and two granddaughters. Also on his plate: training a yellow Labrador puppy, Ranger, who is destined to become his pheasant hunting partner.

"It's time to move on," Martinez said recently.

Humble roots

Martinez's career with St. Paul police was a dream for the 12th and last child of migrant farmworkers from south Texas who labored in the Montana potato fields, the sugar beet rows of the Fargo-Moorhead area and the cornfields of southern Minnesota.

Martinez grew up in Guckeen, Minn., where his parents settled in the early 1960s when they landed jobs at a chicken processing plant. From as young as the age of 5 and throughout his teenage years, Martinez baled hay, detasseled corn, weeded soybeans, picked cucumbers in Wisconsin for Gedney Pickles and, on the rare occasion, milked cows.

"It taught you some good work ethics and values," he said of his humble roots. "I feel blessed and thankful, I really do."

But he wanted more, and despite his father's insistence that he quit high school at age 16 and work or find work after high school, he became the first in his family to attend college.

"Early on as a child … my family was on public assistance," Martinez recalled. "There never seemed to be enough money to go around. I remember the lights were turned off one time, because we didn't have any money. The one equalizer was education."

He enrolled at Minnesota State University, Mankato and studied law enforcement and public administration, paying his way through college by working as a park ranger. It would inspire three of his older siblings to later enroll in college themselves.

He worked as a police officer in Brooklyn Center and Minnetonka before being recruited to St. Paul, where he became a role model for other officers and many members of the city's large Latino population.

"Growing up the way we did, it's just the need to help, to help people — the need to show others that there's a better life," St. Paul police senior Cmdr. John Lozoya said of Martinez's career.

Lozoya, who is also the son of migrant farmworkers and who worked in the fields as well, and Martinez co-founded the NLPOA in 2002.

Connected with community

Ramona Arraguin de Rosales, founder of Academia Cesar Chavez School a tuition-free charter school on St. Paul's East Side, said Martinez and Lozoya have worked hard to establish positive relationships with the community and inspired several young men — her son included — to join either the St. Paul police or fire departments.

"They have a special personality of staying connected to the community, you know?" she said. "They didn't forget where they came from."

In the past 10 years, Martinez adopted 22 of the school's neediest families during the holidays, providing funds that the school used to help the families with gifts, food and other necessities. He served on the school's board of directors from 2005 to 2007.

In addition to his work in the community and efforts to increase officer diversity, Martinez recently oversaw the department's policy shift away from investigating its own officer-involved fatal shootings or serious injuries to having outside agencies handle such cases.

He has no plans to leave Minnesota in his retirement, and doesn't know whether he'll seek a new job. He plans to continue teaching police skills at Hennepin Technical College.

"I'm sure everybody's thinking, 'Now we get him over here. We get him over there,' " Arraguin de Rosales said. "I will be giving him a call."