When he took the helm of the Chicago Police Department in the 1980s, LeRoy Martin made it his mission to tackle the city's growing problems with gangs and drugs.
Colleagues said Mr. Martin handled the gang violence surge with rugged determination, initiating collaboration with agencies like the FBI and Illinois State Police.
But he faced intense scrutiny from the media, which questioned whether he and his team could stem the violent crime, said Jeremy Margolis, director of the State Police around the same time Mr. Martin led the city department.
"He looked the TV reporter in the eye and he said, 'I have the biggest gang in Chicago, the difference is my gang serves the people. We will take care of business,'" Margolis recalled Mr. Martin saying.
Mr. Martin, a former Chicago police superintendent appointed by the late Mayor Harold Washington, died Saturday, Aug. 31, at 84, said Adam Collins, a police spokesman.
The cause of death was a heart attack, said his wife, Constance.
"He was a wonderful husband and father," she said.
During his police tenure, Mr. Martin became the second African-American to lead the department when Washington named him to the post. But Mr. Martin's name also became embroiled in controversy when allegations of torture surfaced against a former police commander he briefly oversaw.
Rudy Nimocks, a former department deputy superintendent, said he met Mr. Martin in the 1950s when they both worked as city bus drivers. But they both aspired to serve as police officers. Mr. Martin left to join the force in 1955. In 1956, Nimocks joined him.
But there were difficulties for African-Americans in the department then, Nimocks recalled. In that era, black officers and white officers were not even assigned to the same squad cars, he said.
As conditions improved and opportunities increased, he and Mr. Martin eventually rose through the ranks, even competing for the job of police superintendent, which Mr. Martin got in 1987.
"If you can start at the bottom and go all the way to the top, you know you've done it well," Nimocks said. "There's fierce competition all along the way."
Terry Hillard, also a former Chicago police superintendent, said he first met Mr. Martin when he was promoted to lieutenant. But the encounter with his boss six months later, when Mr. Martin unexpectedly paged Hillard to his office, stands out more in memory.
Knowing the importance Mr. Martin placed on professionalism, Hillard said a comrade loaned him an oversized coat to wear over the T-shirt, blue jeans and roper boots he normally wore on the narcotics beat.
"He was a stickler for uniform, protocol and professionalism," Hillard said.
He also believed in education and training, Hillard said, saying that was the route to becoming "a progressive police department." Hillard said Mr. Martin sent supervisors to seminars, conferences and training exercises across the country to bring back cutting-edge training to the department.
"If you want to be known as professionals, you've got to act like professionals," Hillard said Mr. Martin would say. "He was a true boss."
Like all superintendents, Mr. Martin faced his share of challenges.
He wanted to lower crime, but gang violence made that difficult. Still, he countered the issues the city faced by collaborating with other agencies, Hillard said.
Nimocks said Mr. Martin grew frustrated with the expectation that police could solve all of the city's problems when few resources were poured into fighting what caused them: a lack of education, lack of mobility and substandard conditions in inner-city schools.
"The difficulty was that as a police administrator … you didn't want to go out there and sound like a pessimist, so you were in a little bit of a quandary," Nimocks said. "You knew you couldn't solve the problem, but you don't want to tell people that who are looking to you as the first line of defense."
Mr. Martin's frustration seemed to become more evident after a trip to China in 1991. During a radio interview after his return, he criticized the American justice system and suggested weakening the U.S. Constitution, which he said engendered too much concern for the rights of criminals.
In a conversation with two reporters after the taping, Mr. Martin said he believed his views reflected popular sentiment. Nimocks said Martin was "coming from a police officer's point of view," resentful of a system that seemed to protect the individual more than the community at large.
His boss, former Mayor Richard M. Daley, later said he disagreed with Mr. Martin's remarks but supported his right to say it. Mr. Martin retired the following year, in 1992, and became director of public safety for the Chicago Housing Authority.
He later became supervisor of investigators for the Cook County medical examiner's office and also made an unsuccessful bid for Cook County sheriff in 1998.
Over the years, Mr. Martin was named as a defendant in at least two lawsuits filed on behalf of alleged torture victims of disgraced police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his detectives.
The former police superintendent denied knowing suspects were abused under Burge's detective division. He moved to fire Burge after initially defending the commander and other officers.
Margolis said he remembers Mr. Martin as passionate for the people he served and protected. He believed the power and authority that comes with being a police officer was "loaned to them by the people," Margolis said.
When Mr. Martin was interviewed by Washington as a candidate for superintendent, he didn't have the same impressive university background as some of his challengers, Margolis recalled.
When the mayor asked what he'd bring to the table, Margolis said: "LeRoy looked at him quickly, but resolutely, and said 'Mr. Mayor, I fight crime.'"
He is also survived by sons Ron and LeRoy Jr., a daughter, Dawn, and three grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Tribune reporters Jonathan Bullington and Jennifer Delgado contributed.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun