By Bob Uphues
James Episcopo, who has served as Brookfield police chief since December 2015, has announced he's retiring on April 19 after serving the village as a police officer for 31 years.
The 59-year-old Episcopo, a low-key leader who has lived in Brookfield his entire career, submitted his letter of retirement to the village board and Village Manager Timothy Wiberg on April 2. Village President Kit Ketchmark announced the news publicly at the village board meeting on April 8.
"I want to point out how blessed I have been to serve the village during my time here in Brookfield," Episcopo wrote in his retirement letter. "The friendships and professional relationships that I have formed with our entire community during this time will always stay with me and are those that mean the most."
Although he's retiring as Brookfield's chief, Episcopo won't be leaving policing altogether. He's has accepted a job as a regional planning coordinator for the Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System (ILEAS), a police mutual aid network formed in 2002 in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
ILEAS members comprise police agencies across the state, including Brookfield, Riverside and North Riverside, and officers assigned to the agency provide emergency responses throughout each region and, sometimes, out of state.
Regional planning coordinators are responsible for designing plans to achieve the agency's goals, including recruiting member agencies and educating them about its purpose, assist in planning emergency management exercises and communicating with members to determine when assistance is needed.
"I know some people that have those positions [at ILEAS], and I thought it might be something I'd be interested in after I retired," Episcopo said in a phone interview.
When a regional planning coordinator position came open about a month ago, Episcopo said he submitted an application. ILEAS made an offer quickly. He'll begin his new job on May 13.
Hired full time in 1987
Episcopo, a LaGrange Highlands native and 1977 Lyons Township High School graduate, came to policing as a 28 year old. After graduating from high school, he worked in the family business, a foodservice concession at Midway Airport, for eight years before becoming Brookfield auxiliary police officer in 1986.
He was hired as a sworn officer a year later under Chief John Hymel and began his rise through the ranks. Episcopo was promoted to sergeant in 2000 and lieutenant in 2008.
"I was really one of those guys where this was always what I wanted to do," Episcopo said. "I'm not sure I ever thought I'd have the opportunity to be chief. I never went to college, and coming up through the ranks these days is more rare."
As a patrol officer, Episcopo said he enjoyed the personal connections he made, and his decision to live in Brookfield has kept him close.
"I think it makes you more committed, more invested in what's going on," Episcopo said.
As chief he continued to try to make personal connections with residents through initiatives like Coffee with the Chief, the annual Beards and Badges fundraiser, Shop with a Cop and the Citizens Police Academy.
"Anytime I've called on anyone for anything, I've gotten nothing but positive support and it's just humbling," Episcopo said.
A 2014 graduate of the FBI National Academy, Episcopo said one of the most gratifying moments of his career was the arrest of three men suspected of killing Brookfield resident Michael Smith in 2016.
Episcopo was just a few weeks into his tenure as chief when Smith, a security guard who had just testified in a criminal trial, was gunned down outside his Forest Avenue home on Jan. 27, 2016.
After the local investigation ran into a wall, Episcopo talked to an FBI agent he'd met at the national academy. In short order, the FBI assigned two agents to the case, and the three suspects were arrested in November 2016. They remain jailed while awaiting trial.
"I'm so proud we solved that case," Episcopo said. "I still have Michael's picture on the bulletin board next to my desk. No matter what happens, I'm going to be sitting next to [Smith's wife] watching those guys get convicted."
Perhaps crystalizing Episcopo's policing philosophy is a "challenge coin" he commissioned and which he has given to every officer in the department. The hefty inch-and-three-quarter diameter coin has the Brookfield Police Department shield on one side framed by the words "Integrity, Trust, Professionalism," with the word "Trust" centered atop the shield.
The other side of the coin is emblazoned with the police officers' oath of office and the words "beati pacifici" – Latin for "blessed are the peacemakers."
"I always have my coin in my pocket, whether I'm working or not," Episcopo said.
Internal search underway
The village is undertaking an internal search for Episcopo's replacement. The two internal candidates for the job are Deputy Chief Edward Petrak and Lt. James Burdett, who is the head of the department's investigations division.
Petrak, 51, who was Episcopo's hand-picked deputy – both were sworn into their present positions on the same day – would appear to be the front runner. Wiberg is conducting interviews with Petrak and Burdett this week.
A new chief could be announced as early as next week.
"If things go well, then I think we'll have a pretty quick transition period," Wiberg said.