March 12, 2010

Longtime Portland police officer dies at 52


— By

Staff Writer

Sgt. Rick Betters, a highly respected member of the Portland Police Department who earned the department's award for heroism for helping a woman escape a burning building, died Wednesday of natural causes.

Betters was admired for his unflagging enthusiasm and his focused approach to the work he did.

''He had a tremendous, tremendous resilience about him and positive attitude,'' said interim Police Chief Joseph Loughlin, who was good friends with Betters. ''The guy could have had his leg broken and say 'I'm fine, no problem.'''

Betters, 52, died at his home in Falmouth Wednesday morning. He is survived by his wife, Jessica, and two daughters, 12 and 2.

Betters was initially hired in Portland in 1974 as a police cadet. He later worked as a dispatcher before leaving the city to work in Mechanic Falls and Wells. He was hired as an officer in Portland in 1988.

In 1994, he received the department's commendation for heroism for his response to an apartment building fire on Cedar Street. He roused sleeping residents and got them to leave, went back into the smoke-filled building to find a woman who was trapped by smoke and flames on the second floor, and led her to safety.

''He's been my best friend for 34 years,'' said Sullivan Rizzo, a former Portland officer who is now a leiutenant with the University of Southern Maine police. Both men were hired by the department as cadets in the mid-1970s.

''At the time, though it sounds a little corny, our focus was to see if we could make a difference,'' helping people and fighting crime, Rizzo said.

Over the years, Betters lobbied hard on behalf of the officers he supervised, even if it caused friction with the administration, Rizzo said.

On the job, Betters had a no-nonsense demeanor and a formidable command presence, but he also could be very sensitive and was devoted to his children, Rizzo said.

That Betters would die suddenly of natural causes was baffling to many who knew him.

Betters was a leader on the department's special reaction team for many years and remained a member of the physically demanding specialty squad.

''He was in great shape, but the guy did not stop,'' Loughlin said. ''On his on-duty time and off-duty time, he was go go go. He crammed a lot into his 52 years.''

Betters was well read, traveled the world, and was a student of history.

Loughlin said that when he felt down or overwhelmed, Betters would call him up and recite a poem about the ancient Spartans' stand at Thermopylae.

In April, Betters traveled to Archangel in Russia as part of a sister-city exchange, explaining American police tactics to Russian police and security personnel.

''He spent a lot of time in the schools talking to the kids,'' said Neale Duffett, an attorney, who coordinated the trip. ''He wore his uniform over there and he was a great celebrity on the street. People would stop him and take photographs. He kind of stole the show.''

The department has endured other losses in the past year.

Officers participated in a service Tuesday for Mary McClaran, the department's finance director who died on Jan. 3.

Sgt. Robert Johnsey died from injuries after his service weapon accidentally fired in May.

Funeral arrangements for Betters were still being made late Wednesday.

''From the cleaning crews all the way up to the people in dispatch, Rick knew everyone and was a huge part of this organization, and we're really going to miss him,'' Loughlin said.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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