Three years into his job as a Riverside cop, Tom Weitzel survived a shotgun blast to the chest.
He was checking on an illegally parked car in the summer of 1987 when a masked man stepped out and blasted him, striking him in his bulletproof vest, which saved his life.
Weitzel remembers sitting in a hospital bed the next day with broken ribs and shotgun pellets in his eyes.
“My wife wanted me to quit,” he says. “But this was my profession. I had to do something to support us.”
Weitzel, 60, retired from the west suburban police department on Thursday after being chief since 2008 — a post in which his public profile has been outsized for a chief of a small-town department.
His near-death experience “shaped me for how serious the job can be even in suburban police departments. It shook this community, I’ll tell you that.”
Weitzel says policing has changed in Riverside, an upscale town of about 8,700 along the Des Plaines River that’s known for its Victorian homes and gas-lit street lamps.
“When I started, I could come to work on the midnight shift and go a week and have one or two calls for service,” he says. “Those days are gone.”
Weitzel says he’s changed, too. He used to think “we could arrest our way out of crime.” Now, he thinks cops have to work more closely with mental health providers and educators.
“As I’ve gotten older, more educated, wiser and seeing where society is going, I have realized we have to reach the kids at an early age,” he says. “I didn’t believe in that in my early career.”
A turning point for him came when he was dealing with an underage kid locked up at the Riverside police station. The mother came to pick up her son, Weitzel says, but neither she nor her son could read the forms they needed to sign for his release.
“I went back there, and she was so embarrassed, she was crying,” he says. “I read it all to them because she had to sign to pick up her juvenile son. And I’m, like, ‘Wow, we’re missing something as a society.’”
Weitzel says he supports Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a nationwide organization of law enforcement leaders who push for better early education.
He also has used his leadership roles in the state and west suburban police chiefs associations to push back on legislation he thought was harmful to society. Weitzel opposed laws that allowed recreational use of marijuana and concealed carrying of firearms, which he sees as a danger to police officers.
He has criticized judges for not cracking down on people who drive under the influence of drugs.
And, in 2014, he ripped then-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s unsuccessful effort to get the Illinois Legislature to reduce the penalties for having small amounts of narcotics.
“I thought that I needed to at least speak up and put out our position as to what was happening as an agency,” he says.
Weitzel says his successor — public safety director Matthew Buckley — faces challenges he didn’t have starting out as chief. The starting salary for new Riverside cops is more than $65,000, but recruiting is down, and fewer former military veterans are applying.
“The last time we gave our police test, we had 180 applicants,” he says. “This time, we had 60. The good thing is we have more diverse applicants: African American, Hispanic, female.”
He says one of his few regrets in his career is that the man who shot him was never brought to justice.
After being shot, Weitzel knocked his head on the bumper of his squad car. His handheld radio was shattered, so he crawled back into his car to call for help.
Investigators believed the gunman was a former state prison inmate planning to invade the home of a state corrections official who lived nearby, Weitzel says.
Years later, federal authorities identified the suspect during a gun-trafficking investigation. But a seven-year statute of limitations on shootings had expired, Weitzel says, and prosecutors were unable to charge the man with trying to kill him.
He says he got the late state Sen. Judy Baar Topinka to amend the law so shootings of officers in the line of duty no longer have a statute of limitations.
And Riverside started providing officers with new bulletproof vests every five years. Weitzel says he’d previously had to buy his own vest, which was held as evidence in the shooting until the statute of limitations had passed on it, and he got the vest back. He still has it.
Weitzel says he’s the only Riverside officer shot in the line of duty since 1987.
“I hope it stays that way,” he says.