BRADENTON -- One of the greatest skills Bradenton Police Officer Tim Gunst mastered during two stints as a sergeant 1st class in the Iraq War was how to build trust with people who initially regarded him with suspicion.
Now the 39-year-old Bronze Star winner is putting that talent to use in the neighborhood surrounding 14th Street West. He’s one of two “business officers” for the Bradenton Police Department responsible for fighting crime around businesses in the area.
Residents are so appreciative of how Gunst has helped reduce crime around their homes that they awarded him a trophy at Wednesday’s city council meeting.
“He treats everybody with respect,” said Delouis Simmons, who has lived near the intersection of 13th Street and 23rd Avenue for 28 years. “He understands that every citizen deserves to be treated as a citizen, even if they’re a criminal.”
“He’s diligent and respectful, even if the person is on the wrong side of the law,” Barbara Zavala added. “He makes sure all of the i’s are dotted and all of the t’s are crossed.”
Gunst joined the Bradenton Police Department five years ago after serving in the Army for 13 years, a career that took him to not only Iraq, but also Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.
While serving in Iraq in 2004, Gunst earned a Bronze Star for leading 23 officers in rescuing 14 Marines who had become overrun by almost 200 armed Iraqi insurgents. That pivotal confrontation required Gunst to “rationalize” instead of humanize, he says.
But as a police officer, Gunst is leaning more on another set of skills he found equally necessary during his time in Iraq: convincing wary Iraqi residents that his main motive was to look out for their best interests.
“Nine times out of 10, the Iraqi residents would think we were just there for their oil because we’re Americans,” Gunst said. “But that wasn’t why I was there. I had to get people to trust me.”
Gunst is taking the same approach in his job patrolling the areas around 14th Street West, an area known for attracting lots of prostitutes, drug dealers and homeless transients who occasionally infringe on the rights of nearby residents.
He’s earned the trust of not only the people who live there, but even some of those violating the law, through simple steps like remembering people’s first names, encouraging them to use his first name rather than “Officer Gunst,” and walking or riding a bicycle rather than always driving around in his patrol car.
“If I’m in my vehicle, they’re not going to be as likely to approach me because it acts as a barrier,” he says.
Gunst also makes use of another key skill he built while serving in Iraq: paying attention to detail. As a “targeting officer,” meaning one of the officers charged with tracking down Iraq’s criminal elements, Gunst says he learned how to build on observations and gather details that others might overlook.
“I learned that just because something may not look like it’s there, that doesn’t mean it’s not there,” he says. “If you pay attention enough, you’ll find it.”
Simmons says her neighborhood was a safe enclave for mostly elderly residents when she first moved there in 193. But sometime in the mid 1990s, it began to attract drug dealers and prostitutes.
“It was chaos,” Simmons said. “There were dozens of people on the street all the time. They were just always there.”
Simmons first experienced Gunst’s devotion to cleaning up her neighborhood about a year ago, when two transients who had taken up residence in an abandoned home behind her house broke her windows.
Gunst not only tracked down the offenders quickly; he also made sure he stayed near her house until the windows were repaired.
Because of Gunst, Simmons says, her neighbors now feel empowered to call her when they notice suspicious activity. She recalls one evening when she was warned to stay away from her home because some transients had positioned themselves in her back yard.
“They never used to call me before,” she said. “Officer Gunst leaves no stone unturned; he is not afraid.”
Gunst regularly works with local residents who allow him to “stake out” the neighborhood from their homes. He also is able to gather guidance from neighborhood residents on where suspected criminals are hanging out or plying their trade.
He describes himself as someone who has always had “the gift of gab” and was named class clown in high school.
Deputy Police Chief Jeff Lewis says making himself constantly available is one of the key traits that has made Gunst effective.
“The residents know they can call him at any time on his cellphone,” Lewis said. “He’s a true asset to the department and to the city of Bradenton.”
Christine Hawes, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7081.