UMPD’s first Black female lieutenant reflects on her journey to history

After 20 years working for the University of Miami Police Department, Octavia Bridges became the first Black woman promoted to the rank of lieutenant in the UMPD’s history. As of December 2020, Bridges oversees crime prevention with UM’s community affairs unit.

“You can do whatever you set out to, you can accomplish whatever it is you want to, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do this because you’re female,” Bridges said, adding that the significance of her promotion took time to sink in.

“It really didn’t hit me, like ‘oh wow, the first Black female lieutenant for the university in its existence.’”

UMPD Lieutenant Octavia Bridges is the highest ranking Black female in the department's history.
UMPD Lieutenant Octavia Bridges is the highest ranking Black female in the department's history. Photo credit: UM Communications

Bridges grew up in Liberty City, where she learned to value education and prioritized excelling in school to be a role model to her younger siblings.

“Growing up in Liberty City, which is one of the toughest areas in South Florida, I’ve always said I would not be a statistic as far as a ‘we don’t make it out of the hood type thing,’” Bridges said.

“Being the oldest child, that was hard right there, with younger siblings looking up to you,” she continued.

Bridges earned a degree in criminal justice from Florida Memorial University and upon graduating worked as a corrections officer. She said she always dreamed of going to law school.

“Law was one of the things that I originally set out to do, but to just be able to be still in that area is a blessing to me”

Her sister in-law had just graduated from UM as well and encouraged her to join UMPD, which, at the time, offered full tuition for law school to its officers. Once she was hired, the program was no longer offered, so she decided to remain a police officer.

“I always knew I’d be in that area, the criminal justice realm of it, sometimes when you have other ideas, God has something different in store for you, but I love what I do. That’s what got me here for 20 long years,” Bridges said.

She was a patrol officer assigned to maintain order and protect a specific area for three and a half years. She was then promoted to criminal investigations and spent the next 12 years solving open cases

She then returned to patrol in 2016, after being promoted to sergeant. Now, she’s the first Black female lieutenant.

Bridges describes her promotion as a pivotal moment.

“When I was told that I got the position I was shocked at first,” Bridges said. “I always set out to make sure I excelled in everything that I do, and I’ve always said that I wanted to continue to move up.”

UMPD Chief David Rivero is adamant that Bridges was the best person for the position. “What sets Octavia apart from others is not so much that she is a great cop, but rather the fact that she is a great mother, wife, sister and daughter,” said Rivero, “Her family values of doing things right translates to her job very easy because it’s embedded in her character to always do good for people.”

Outside of her work with UMPD, Bridges is an active member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and was vice president of a mentorship based non-profit organization. She said she has received an outpouring of support from young Black women within these communities.

“To have those young girls come up to you like, ‘how did you feel when you put on your uniform?’ just does something to you, and it’s a different feeling to know that someone is looking up to you other than your family or your children, it’s exciting,” she said.

Bridges said she does not let gender or race define her ability to effectively serve as a Black, female lieutenant at a predominantly white institution. She adds that achievements among Black women are “on the rise” and “that’s what makes it so noticeable.”

Although she enjoys working with men, Bridges said that being a Black female in uniform is a challenge nevertheless.

“You just have to deal with what you have at the moment, understand that people are different, their perspectives of situations are different and just try to educate them,” Bridges said. “I’m up for it, been doing it for 20 years, and just set out to do the best that I can.”

Despite the challenges it brings, Bridges said she learns a lot from working in a male dominated field and views it as empowering.

“I learn a lot from the guys, they take training very seriously. I want to be able to follow them in their footsteps but also do very well in whatever it is I set out to do,” Bridges said.

Rivero knows Bridges well from their time on patrol together. He had the honor of promoting Bridges twice and does not regret it, he said. Bridges said Rivero’s support means a lot to her.

“Just to…know that he sees the greatness in his employees, says a lot, and my promotion allowed for other movement in the department,” she said.

In her new role as Lieutenant, Bridges said she aims to “bridge the gap” between UMPD and the student body that was partially exacerbated by the outbreak of COVID-19. She mentions with a laugh wanting the pandemic to end so she can “get out there and really mingle with the kids.”

“My whole purpose is to get out there and foster those relationships with the student leaders of different organizations, attend a lot of the meetings, community outreach,” she said. “It’s important for the community to see that we have more to offer.”

Bridges described working with UMPD as a “revolving door” due to the yearly student turnover. She said that her department has had to continually adapt and make changes to fit the needs of the student body. Despite this, Bridges said she feels fortunate to work at UM, partly because the student body is relatively well behaved.

“We’re just fortunate to be working at a great university, where we don’t really have to deal with a lot of things that other places deal with, it’s a blessing,” Bridges said.