When Humberto Cardounel Sr. fled Cuba in 1961 after Fidel Castro took power, he left most things behind, including his law career, for a new start in the U.S. As he rebuilt his life in Virginia, he began a family with his wife, Lourdes, who was another Cuban immigrant, and he taught Spanish at Richmond.
“I remember him telling me that his son wanted to be a policeman,” said Tom Bonfiglio, a literature and linguistics professor and colleague of Cardounel Sr. “Wow, did he become a policeman.”
That son, 1988 Richmond alum Humberto I. Cardounel Jr., is the new Henrico County police chief and the county’s first Hispanic police chief. Cardounel Jr. was accepted into the police academy after graduation and steadily climbed the ranks.
With the country in the midst of anti-police protests, the new chief is facing challenges on how to police effectively while trying to bring his community together.
One way to accomplish that goal, Cardounel Jr. said, is by trying to do what's right.
“You can do things by the book, you can follow the letter of the law, but it’s those intangible things, it’s the going above and beyond to help folks,” Cardounel Jr. said. “That’s the true meaning of doing the right thing.”
When Cardounel Jr. joined the police force in 1988, Henrico was not as diverse as it is today. As the population has grown, so has the proportion of minorities, increasing from 20 percent African American in 1990 to more than 30 percent African American in 2014. The number of Hispanic residents has also increased, from 2,171 residents in 1990 to 15,001 residents in 2010, according to a report by Henrico County.
In a diverse community, one of the major challenges Cardounel Jr. is facing is bridging the gap between all types of people and law enforcement, especially during national conversations centered on racial profiling and police brutality.
“There’s perhaps a negative perception of law enforcement in general across the nation," Cardounel Jr. said. "I’m not trying to paint that picture on every community, because around here we’ve been very fortunate and very blessed. We’ve had great support from our residents, from our citizens, but the challenge is going to be to make those connections even stronger.”
One part of Cardounel Jr.’s goals as police chief is to ensure that the police force accurately reflects the community, with women and minorities well-represented.
“We can have true representation, and not just folks that can speak a language, but folks who understand the culture, no matter what your ethnic background is,” Cardounel Jr. said.
Though his wife, Nancy, said she had been worried about her husband’s safety in today’s environment, she was proud of him for taking on this role.
“He can be very quiet, and he takes in everything,” Nancy Cardounel said. “But then that also helps him to make good, sound decisions.”
Many of Cardounel Jr.’s colleagues are also excited about the promotion. The last two chiefs were in their 50s or 60s when selected, but Cardounel Jr. is still in his 40s with kids at home.
“He represents the new generation of the modern family,” Lt. Chris Eley said. “He still has kids at home, so he knows the demands of a family.”
Though Cardounel Jr. is close with his family, the death of his father in 2003 has been difficult.
“That’s been the hardest part of this, is that his dad’s not alive to see it, because he always knew that he would be chief one day,” Nancy Cardounel said of the promotion.
Cardounel Jr. was close to his father even while attending Richmond when his father was a professor. Though Cardounel Jr. admits college is a time when some students would want distance from their parents, he didn’t mind the close proximity.
“I could stop by Dad’s office, and Dad would never turn down having lunch, especially when he knew it was because I was a little short on cash, looking for someone to pick up the lunch tab,” Cardounel Jr. said.
Though Cardounel Sr. did not speak often of life in Cuba when he was at work, Cuban music, food and culture were plentiful at home. Cardounel Jr. has continued these traditions, cooking Cuban dishes such as arroz con pollo and even roasting an entire pig last Christmas with the help of his two brothers. His father was proud of his Cuban heritage, Cardounel Jr. said, and spoke often of Cuba with his wife and children.
His parents left Cuba when they realized the promises Castro made were not being kept, and that the country was moving toward a dictatorship. Since President Barack Obama restored diplomatic ties to Cuba in 2014, Cardounel Jr. would like to visit his parents’ homeland but is unsure of when the right time would be.
“My father was very adamant that he would never go back to Cuba until there was democracy instituted,” Cardounel Jr. said. “Unfortunately, my father passed away before he was able to see that come to fruition, but I’m hopeful that democracy is not too far off.”
While family has been an important motivator for Cardounel Jr., so has his Cuban heritage. He wants this promotion to remind citizens that opportunities are abundant regardless of race or ethnicity.
“It’s important to understand that this country is built on foreign influence,” Cardounel Jr. said. “That’s what makes us as rich of a society. No matter what your cultural or ethnic background is, in today’s law enforcement era, there are opportunities for everybody.”
Contact reporter Caroline Utz at email@example.com