The police chiefs in both Riverside and Brookfield reached out to their communities late last week, thanking them for an outpouring of support and sympathy after five Dallas police officers were killed and seven more were wounded by a sniper on July 7.
In open letters to residents of both communities, Riverside Chief Thomas Weitzel and Brookfield Chief James Episcopo mourned the victims of the Dallas attack and expressed pride in serving their respective communities.
“We have a diverse community here that we are proud to serve and rest assured that we are committed to preserving the peace here at home and keeping us all safe, regardless of our origins and backgrounds,” Episcopo wrote in his letter, which is published on the village of Brookfield’s website.
Weitzel said in his letter, which was emailed via Nixle on Sunday, that his officers would be wearing black mourning bands on their badges. He also said he was humbled by the food, flowers, notes and messages of support the department has received in recent days.
“[Riverside police] do not expect to receive such praise as they feel it is an honor and duty to simply serve their community in the best capacity they can,” Weitzel wrote. “We are extremely grateful that our citizens respect our profession and what we do.”
Internally, the messages the chiefs sent their staffs were, first and foremost, calls to support one another, to work in teams and to ensure safety.
Both chiefs also acknowledged that last week’s events were different and that something had fundamentally changed and that even small towns like Riverside and Brookfield were not immune to the things happening elsewhere in the nation.
“I want to make sure that each and every one of you know that [the Dallas attack] represents a turning point in law enforcement,” Weitzel wrote in his email memo to his officers. “What is happening nationwide could affect law enforcement even in a small community such as ours.”
Episcopo in his memo to staff also referenced two civilian deaths last week at the hands of police in Minnesota and Louisiana, saying that while those incidents were still being investigated, if the officers were found to be at fault there would be consequences “not only for them, but for all of us in this profession right now.”
“People are upset,” Episcopo wrote to his officers. “They are angry and want to be heard.”
In the face of that anger, however, both chiefs wanted their officers to engage positively, not hunker down.
“Do not overreact,” Weitzel wrote. “Make sure you are conducting yourself in a professional manner.”
Episcopo asked his officers to focus on essential public safety and less on ticketing. He also asked officers to be more visible and approachable to residents of the community, which has shown so much support in the face of a difficult week.
“Be present out in the community right now and share that information with people,” Episcopo wrote. “We have a great community here, and they are stepping up to show us that they appreciate what we do. Send that message back to them every chance you get.”
In a separate phone interview, Episcopo expanded on the subject of community engagement.
“It’s almost like it’s time to be more involved with the community,” he said.
For Weitzel, seeing a change in the world new police officers confront is a very personal development. He has two sons under the age of 25 who are police officers, one in North Riverside and one in Lockport. A third son just graduated with a degree in criminal justice and hopes to become a police officer.
“I’ve been a police officer for 31 years, and this is the first time my wife has ever said she was afraid,” Weitzel said in an interview.
Weitzel, who long has advocated for stricter gun control, said something has to change.
“Guns are killing citizens, killing children, killing police officers,” Weitzel said. “These [Dallas] police officers were killed with a high-powered rifle [by someone] with military training.
“Maybe this is the turning point, but I don’t know. I thought Newtown [where 20 elementary school students and six school staff members were gunned down by an assault rifle-wielding man], with children being killed, was the turning point.”