5 Manatee County law officers honored at Congressional District Law Enforcement Awards

SARASOTA -- An off-duty Manatee County Sheriff's Office deputy helped track a man firing a gun in a residential area.

A Palmetto police officer helped feed and clothe children found neglected by their mother.

Each law enforcement official honored Friday at the fifth annual 16th Congressional District Law Enforcement Awards had a story.

Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, came up with the idea to honor law officers.

The ceremony at the Sarasota County Building, 1660 Ringling Blvd., gave special recognition to law enforcement officers, departments, and units for exceptional achievement.

Four law enforcement officials from Manatee County received awards out of 13 individual honors:

Manatee County Sheriff's Office deputy Billie Wilson, 34, of Duette, received an Above and Beyond the Call of Duty Award;

Bradenton police officer Kenneth Simunovic, 26, of Manatee County, received an Above and Beyond the Call of Duty Award;

Palmetto police officer Tim Matthews, 57, of Palmetto, received a Dedication and Professionalism Award; and

Holmes Beach police officer Michael Walker, 32, of Bradenton, who received a Dedication and Professionalism Award.

Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Barbara Ehrhart, who lives in Manatee County, was also honored Friday with the Career Service Award.

"I just count it an honor and a privilege to be awarded the award and, just like every officer and every deputy here, it's just instinct whenever your training really takes over," said Wilson, who helped lead law enforcement officials in Hillsborough County to a man who had been firing a gun through a residential neighborhood Oct. 18, 2015.

After welcoming officials and supporters to the ceremony, Buchanan took aim at the media as a result of a conversation he said he had with an official from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

"One of the things that came up is this whole thing of what's happened, I think has been somewhat deplorable, where the press has overplayed, I think with a broad brush, a lot of law enforcement in terms of looking at it the last couple of years in a negative light," he said. "And I'll just tell ya that I can't think of anybody in Congress, many of the community leaders here, that don't have your back and I think how this has played out is wrong. I think it unfortunately saps a lot of the morale, a lot of the people that serve honorably and I just want to tell you I just don't think it's right and we're going to do what we can to change that."

Buchanan then stressed the importance of recognizing law enforcement.

"Law enforcement is a demanding profession that requires sacrifice, courage, and a dedication to serve others," he said. "Every day, brave men and women put themselves in harm's way to enforce the laws of our society and protect public safety. They deserve our gratitude and respect."

Simunovic, who saved a woman from an apparent suicide attempt during a structure fire Nov. 21, 2015, said it was an honor to receive an award from the U.S. House of Representatives.

"It's not every day that that happens but, in the same sense, we just do our jobs," the officer said. "We get dispatched to the calls. ... Our training, it takes over and we do our job."

Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.