BRADENTON — Bradenton Police Chief Michael Radzilowski once served in the murder capital of the United States, with two of those victims police officers he supervised.
So as he reflects on his upcoming 40th anniversary in law enforcement, he knows all too well what is on the line every day for his Bradenton officers.
“I worry about these guys so much,” the chief said. “I wish the public could see what our officers face out there. I read the reports, I know how dangerous it is.”
On Wednesday, in the hour before the Bradenton City Council meeting, Radzilowski may be able to put that worry aside during a celebration of his milestone in law enforcement.
But in talking about his career, a discussion invariably turns back to his officers and the dangers they face.
The chief talks about his past, joining the Washington, D.C., police department in 1970 at age 19 like it was a million years ago. He served there for 31 years, making the rank of captain before retiring to move to Florida to care for his elderly mother, who still lives in Venice. Radzilowski scrolls the memories from his days in D.C., with one standing out among the others. He was patrolling the city on March 30, 1981, when gunshots exploded outside the Washington Hilton Hotel. A madman had just shot President Ronald Reagan when the chief, then a patrol officer, pulled up and jumped out of his cruiser.
“As soon as I got out, they were pushing him inside the limo to get him out of there. I ran to help the others still on the street because we had three other people also shot,” he said. “That was my brush with history.”
Radzilowski and a Secret Service agent got to Reagan’s press secretary, James Brady, and tried to carry him to help. But he was so badly wounded they told him not to move. Later, the chief learned that a Secret Service agent and a D.C. police officer had also been shot.
It would not be the first time Radzilowski would have to worry for a fallen officer. Violence against police would become a grim part of Radzilowski’s career as D.C. plummeted into crime in the late 1980s amid the crack cocaine epidemic. By the 1990s, the city had earned the dubious recognition as the nation’s murder capital.
The fight against drugs became the department’s mission, and it took the lives of two officers under Radzilowski’s command as a sergeant, and later as a captain.
In looking back on his career, the chief cannot come up with a specific high moment, saying there are too many, but picking out the lows is easy: the deaths of those officers, both killed in drug enforcement operations.
“Those moments are the worst of the worst,” the chief said. “The thing of it is, in both cases the shooters could have gotten away without killing them. They took the time to walk over and shoot both of them in the head.”
After 31 years in the big city, Radzilowski called it quits and moved to Florida to care for his mother. His father, a bakery worker in a grocery store chain, had died. Caring for his family is something the chief learned early having six siblings, three younger than him.
“Both my parents had to work, so in my house when you got old enough, you learned how to cook, clean and care for the younger ones real quick,” the chief said.
By 2001, the police chief job came open in Bradenton and he applied.
“I looked at it and thought, ‘I can do this,’ ” he said.
But at first he didn’t get the job, losing out as one of three finalists to Al Hogle. It would be a twist of fate that landed Radzilowski as Bradenton’s top cop. Hogle left to take an offer as chief of the Longboat Key Police Department. Radzilowski got the nod to take over.
The chief says his community policing philosophy, under which officers are assigned to specific neighborhoods and are charged with getting to know their employers — the people — has been the biggest difference maker during his tenure. He points to a reduction in crime for several years running as a sign that his plan worked.
“I think our residents get a great bang for their buck. I would put the job our officers do, and our statistics up against any department our size.”
It has not always been smooth sailing internally, and the chief acknowledges that one of the more challenging jobs has been weeding out what he calls “bad cops.” This was illustrated in the summer of 2007 when a prostitute came forward to say she had sex with three of his officers while they were on duty. One of the officers admitted to the sexual activity, and all three resigned.
When asked if he ever felt he, too, should resign over those officer’s actions, the chief said he thought about it.
“I am ultimately responsible for what goes on here,” Radzilowski said. “If I ever felt that I personally did something wrong, I certainly would have left. It is constantly my job to look for bad cops, and if they are found, get them out of here. And that is what I did.”
The chief says he has a timeframe in mind for when he plans to retire, but isn’t saying when, only to estimate that it will be in less than two years. The chief’s job in Bradenton will be his last in law enforcement, he said.
For now, marking his 40th year as a cop will be enough.
“Forty years is a long time to do anything,” he said. “I am never one to toot my own horn, but a lot of people came to me and said they wanted to do something. So I will have some Kool-Aid and some cake and say hi to everyone.
“I can tell you 40 years has blown by.”