Ambassador Highlight

Chief Tom Weitzel (Ret) of Riverside (IL) Police Department

Riverside, Illinois is a small suburban community located 9 miles west of Chicago. Incorporated in 1875, it may be considered the first planned community within the United States. A small town with a population of less than ten thousand. The historic, tree-lined streets showcase homes built in the style of such renowned architects as Frank Lloyd Wright and William Le Baron Jenney. For those looking to escape the chaos of nearby Chicago, Riverside would be a peaceful reprieve.

August 12, 1987, started off relatively cool for a summer morning. Sunrise was still several hours away. Like similar small towns, Riverside had town ordinances meant to preserve the integrity of the community. Street-side parking after 2 AM was one such ordinance. The officers would be aware of these local laws and any violation would draw the attention of an observant Police Officer.

Officer Tom Weitzel had just three years on with the Riverside Police Department, and by some standards could still be considered a rookie. At 3 AM that morning he found himself riding in a “single” patrol car. While patrolling the 2 square mile community Tom noticed a vehicle parked along the curb outside a residential home. Pulling behind the vehicle, he used his spotlight to light the inside of the car. The tinted windows were so dark, he recalls, that the spotlight could not penetrate the car’s interior. Stepping from his police car, Tom was unaware that a decision made three years earlier was about to save his life.

He had made it as far as his front bumper when a figure, in the backseat of the car, rolled out the door. Two popped up from the bushes. Tom heard the unmistakable sound of a shotgun round being chambered. The shot hit him in the chest. In an instant, he was knocked to the ground striking his head on the bumper of his car. The two figures from the bushes ran back to the car and all three fled the scene. Tom made his way back to his patrol car. The wire on his portable having been severed by the birdshot, he used the car radio to call for help.

The medical report would show that Tom sustained injuries to his face and upper torso. The birdshot had caused injuries to his eyes and the force from the round had broken several ribs. The injuries would have been a lot worse, if not fatal, had Tom not been wearing the bulletproof vest he bought on his own three years earlier. This piece of armor, not yet a standard issue for many departments, had been his most valuable purchase.

Tom’s recovery would be its own journey. As a newlywed husband, he knew he needed to support his family, and law enforcement was his calling. His wife, Meg, also struggled after the shooting, pressing him to resign from the career he loved. Understandably, the shooting had a significant impact on her as well. To add to the trauma, the suspect had fled and would not be identified for over seven years.

In 1987 Tom was awarded the Kevlar/DuPont Survivor’s Club Award for having survived an armed encounter. He returned to work and with the support of his wife had a thriving career. He would rise through the ranks and attain the position of Chief of Police for Riverside, Illinois, a position he would hold for thirteen years before retiring in 2020. Together, he and Meg have raised three sons — Alex, Matthew, and Peter. All three have gone into law enforcement and are officers in local communities around Chicago.

Investigators believed the gunman was a former state prison inmate planning to invade the home of a state corrections official who lived nearby. Years after the shooting, federal authorities identified the suspect during a gun-trafficking investigation. By then, a seven-year statute of limitations on shootings had expired, and prosecutors were unable to charge the man with trying to kill him. Through his constant efforts to change the law, Chief Weitzel was able to get the late state Senator Judy Baar Topinka to amend the statute so shootings of officers in the line of duty no longer had a statute of limitations. In addition to changing legislation, the Riverside Police Department started issuing their officers bulletproof vests every five years.

Chief Weitzel’s family is deeply rooted in Law Enforcement and his work continues to support those who serve our communities. His brother Michael is a retired Deputy from the Grundy (IL) County Sheriff’s Office and his cousin Carl, retired as a Lieutenant Colonel with the Illinois State Police.

When asked why he decided to apply to be an ambassador, Chief Weitzel stated, “It is time for me to give back. I have had a successful career and was fortunate to receive many accolades over the years. I want to give back to the public and to the profession [that] I love in a meaningful, honorable, and thoughtful way with nothing expected in return but simply being able to help show that law enforcement is a profession worthy of not only joining but staying involved in — despite the ongoing, disparaging attention that’s been unfairly heaped upon it.”

Upon completing his training as an ambassador this past November, Chief Weitzel stated, “It is an honor to serve as an ambassador for the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, as this is one of the most important positions in which I will be involved in my lifetime. It is my hope that I will serve in a capacity that will better facilitate police agencies, officers, and family throughout the State of Illinois with line-of-duty-deaths, the Memorial and Museum, and Officer Safety and Wellness.”

Chief Weitzel did not let his shooting derail his career. He went on to hold numerous positions within the Riverside Police Department, rising through the ranks, graduating from the FBI’s National Academy, and becoming Chief of Police, a position he held for 13 years. As a retiree, he continues to fight for law enforcement. Chief Weitzel continues to utilize his time working to get the federal government to take over investigations and prosecutions of all line-of-duty deaths in the nation.

If you get a chance to talk to Chief Weitzel, make sure you ask him the details of what took place that fateful night in 1987. You can also hear Chief Weitzel tell his story on the Law Enforcement Today Radio Show and Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @ChiefWeitzel, or contact him directly at [email protected].

Chief Weitzel is a regular contributor to the John Howell Radio Show in Chicago, WLS AM 890, and writes a bi-monthly police column, entitled “Roll Call” for the Suburban Life Newspaper–Shaw Media. He currently serves on two domestic violence task forces in Illinois; both appointments were made by Governor Pritzker.

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund Ambassador Program promotes the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, National Law Enforcement Museum, and the Officer Safety and Wellness programming through outreach, resources, and education.

All active and retired law enforcement officers are encouraged to apply. Start your application process.