As he walked up to the podium at the village board meeting on May 20 to address past and present elected officials, his officers and the community he had served for the past 37 years, Police Chief Thomas Weitzel had one main goal.
“I just wanted to hold it together,” said Weitzel, who retired after his long service as a Riverside police officer, including 13 years as chief.
He nearly did, too.
He remained stoic, if briefly perplexed when he opened a gift box presented to him by Village Manager Jessica Frances and found inside a purple plastic Little Mermaid watch. Village President Joseph Ballerine quickly resolved the gag by removing the real watch from his own wrist and handing it to Weitzel.
He also received mementos and certificates of appreciation from the officers in his department and the Riverside American Legion.
For his part, Weitzel invited his wife, Meg, to stand by his side – the two have been married since they were 22 years old and have three sons, all of whom work as police officers – and thanked his officers for his success as chief.
He also pointed out that his success was also attributable to Riverside residents themselves, those who have served on the Riverside Police and Fire Commission and have vetted, hired and sometime disciplined the village’s police officers.
“They care deeply about the officers of this department,” Weitzel said.
The dam broke, though, when he recounted how his last day of work in Riverside started. As he was leaving home, admittedly “kind of sad,” Weitzel said, his wife slipped him a note with a quote from Mr. Rogers.
“Every single ending is a beginning, too.”
As he read the quote aloud, with Meg standing by his side, Weitzel was overcome, however briefly.
Weitzel isn’t exactly certain what he’s at the beginning of, short of a month-long vacation. He said he’d perhaps be interested in serving in some sort of interim capacity as a chief on a temporary basis through a program offered by the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. There may be other part-time opportunities within other law enforcement agencies.
Unlike some, the 60-year-old Weitzel does not have a firm plan for his retirement years.
But his he was reminded repeatedly last week of his lasting impact on Riverside as its police chief, including by four past village presidents, including the one who swore him in as a rookie officer.
“It was my pleasure as a young trustee, and I was young once, in 1984 when we swore in young Officer Weitzel. He looked like he was 18 years old,” said former President Joseph DiNatale. “I can remember saying to the chief, Don Doneske, this young fellow is going to take your job someday.
“He exceeded my every expectation. Everybody he trained will make this town a better place.”
Ben Sells, who served as president from 2013-21, pointed to the Riverside police officers who stood in solidarity behind Weitzel at the podium as Weitzel’s legacy.
“If you look behind us here, you see Tom Weitzel,” Sells said. “You see the kind of people he draws into our department.”
Sells also remarked that even as a veteran chief, Weitzel kept an open mind about what policing ought to strive for in terms of serving the public.
“Even in the later years of your service, you never stopped learning,” Sells said. “Chief Weitzel led the charge in terms of community policing and finding a way for policing.”
That sentiment was echoed by Trustee Cristin Evans, who said Weitzel stepped up in the past year not only to confront the difficulties of policing during a pandemic, but by taking the lead in advocating for standardized use-of-force training, national certification to strengthen police accountability and creating a police misconduct database.
Riverside police adopted the NAACP’s 10 Shared Principles for policing in the wake of civil unrest that followed the death of George Floyd in May 2020, and Weitzel has advocated for increased use of mental health professionals to either augment or replace police in responses to non-criminal incidents.
“You have always risen to the challenge, especially in the past year, not only in dealing with COVID, but with other social issues that have arisen and many try to avoid,” Evans said. “You have never shied away from tough conversations with the community or with me.”
After the presentation honoring Weitzel for his career of service, the chief walked out of the door and down the steps of the township hall, flanked by fellow police officers saluting him. Police vehicles from Riverside and other agencies idled quietly, lining both sides of Riverside Road, with their emergency lights flashing a final tribute.