BRADENTON -- During his 27-year career at the Bradenton Police Department, Deputy Chief Jeffrey Lewis has seen it all from crack cocaine stashed in baby diapers to bloody, drug-related homicides.
Since joining the department on Halloween Day in 1985, Lewis has worked under four different chiefs and -- as the city grew -- he saw the department expand from about 30 to the current 118 sworn personnel. Lewis is retiring March 31.
“I’m proud of the department, not myself,” Lewis said. “I’m very proud to have had a career here.”
After graduating from high school, Lewis joined the Marine Corps. For the 19-year-old, it seemed like the right choice. His father was an ex-Marine and he wanted to serve his country.
During his six years as a Marine, Lewis traveled the world on different missions including ones in Okinawa; Roda, Spain; and Beirut, Lebanon.
When the U.S. Embassy in Beirut was bombed in 1983, Lewis said he heard the explosion from his station at the city’s airport.
During his time in the Marine Corps, Lewis said he was taught how to do more with less, something that came in handy years later at the police department during tough economic times.
“Lately with the economy and the way it is,” Lewis said, “we’ve really had to do more with less.”
In 1985, he headed back home to Sarasota. In 1988, he received an honorable discharge.
Lewis said he wanted to become a police officer for two reasons: to help people and serve his country.
Lewis began as a parking enforcement officer but quickly moved up the ranks. He has been a patrolman, detective, sergeant, lieutenant, captain and major.
During his career, Lewis has seen both the good and gritty sides of being an officer.
He’s done it all from returning stolen property to its rightful owner to arresting hit-and-run drivers to building community relations.
The New York native launched his career during one of the biggest drug eras in the country.
“The crack cocaine epidemic was in full swing,” Lewis recalled.
As a SWAT team member, he had many adrenaline-pumping moments.
“You’re breaching a door, and you’re entering a premises that is known to be inhabited by gun-toting drug dealers,” he said.
“And you know they have the rifles, the guns and capabilities inside to kill you if they want to.”
When SWAT team members served search warrants, it was common to find crack cocaine stuffed into baby diapers.
As a homicide detective, Lewis has investigated stabbings, shootings, fires and hangings.
“I really can’t think of any type of homicide that I haven’t seen,” he said.
Sometimes, there is the “fear of the unknown,” he said.
He remembers walking into a home in the 900 block of Third Street West moments after a multiple homicide.
The gun smoke was still in the air. He wanted to secure the scene, not knowing if the killer was hiding inside.
Lewis said the worst cases are those where “there’s absolutely nothing you can do.”
He remembers a 12-year-old boy who rode his bicycle into traffic on U.S. 41 and died.
“That 12-year-old boy right now would be 34 years old had he lived,” he said. “I wondered what his life could have been like.”
He’s seen technology advances during his time in the department.
“I can remember having a DUI arrest and the subject in the backseat,” Lewis said.
Moments later, the drunk vomited. When Lewis stopped at a red light, the vomit oozed to the front of the car, staining his pant legs.
Another DUI suspect once urinated through the cage dividing the front and back of the patrol car, wetting Lewis’s driver’s seat.
He wasn’t in the car at the time.
“This is the type of thing officers had to endure,” Lewis said, laughing.
But nowadays, the back seat of patrol cars is completely sealed off and can be hosed down.
As deputy chief, Lewis is responsible for the department’s divisions and bureaus.
His duties also include reviewing department reports, attending outside conferences, and serving as public information officer.
Lewis said he doesn’t want a retirement reception.
“I would just like to say my goodbyes and take one good look around and just walk off into the sunset,” Lewis said.
“I’ve been thanked enough by just having the oppor- tunity of having been here and completed a successful and rewarding career with this city and this department.”
Police Chief Michael Radzilowski said Lewis will be missed.
“He makes sure he’s always at work on time and stays until the job is done,” he said. “I never have to worry about him doing it right.”
Capt. Warren Merriman said he met Lewis during a ride-along in September 1996 when he was applying for employment at the department.
Merriman said Lewis often told him, “You can make the most of yourself at this department as long as you do your job and treat people the way you want to be treated.”
Lewis’s office is adorned with many mementoes from his law enforcement career:
Figurines of SWAT team members and police officers given to him by his family. A photograph of Lewis in his Marine uniform at the Beirut airport. Another photograph of Lewis shaking hands with FBI director Robert S. Mueller III after completing the FBI National Academy.
But in a few weeks, Lewis will be clearing out his office and moving onto the next phase of his life.
“I think I’ve earned my honorable discharge from the police department,” he said.