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The journey of an officer who turned an ambush into a catalyst for change

In 1987, Tom Weitzel was issuing a parking ticket when he was ambushed and shot by a gang member; the incident taught him the importance of standing by his officers in the best and worst of times

Weitzel Family.jpg

Weitzel’s love for law enforcement must have been contagious for he was followed into law enforcement by not one but all three of his sons.

Photo courtesy of Tom Weitzel

It was obvious at an early age that Tom Weitzel was born to be a cop. In second grade at St. Luke’s Elementary School, young Tommy would jump from his desk during class to run to the window whenever he heard sirens wailing down the street in front of the school. His teacher would patiently urge the young boy to return to his seat after the squad passed.

Weitzel first entered law enforcement as a police officer for the Brookfield Zoo (Ill.) Police Department. In 1984, he applied and was one of 400 candidates for four positions on the Riverside (Ill.) Police Department. Weitzel was hired to serve and protect the 9,000 residents of Riverside, a suburb near Chicago.

This career choice would lead him to be ambushed in 1987. This is how it happened.

Riverside, Illinois

It is important for readers to note that Riverside was a meticulously laid out city, imagined and designed by famous architect Frederick Law Olmsted. It has four streets running straight through the village and the rest of the streets wind scenically among well-kept houses with manicured lawns.

Instead of traditional streetlights, the streets are lined with quaint gas light lamps, bringing to mind a Currier and Ives print. The lamps are picturesque but give out only a little more light than a man standing on the corner holding a flickering BIC lighter.

Because of the winding streets and poor lighting, no on-street parking is allowed from 2 to 6 a.m. unless the vehicle’s owner leaves their parking lights on.

Parking ticket ambush

On August 12, 1987, Weitzel had three years of law enforcement experience. He was assigned to patrol on the night shift as he wheeled through the streets of Riverside in his Crown Victoria. At 3 a.m., he spotted what appeared to be an unoccupied vehicle without plates on Northgate Road. It was parked illegally. The driver-side was against the curb on the wrong side of the street. He parked behind the vehicle and exited his squad to get a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) for the parking ticket he intended to issue.

As Weitzel approached with his Maglite in his left hand, he discovered the windows were covered with an impenetrable after-market tint. What happened next, Weitzel said, “happened so fast!”

As Weitzel reached the front left bumper of his squad, the driver’s side passenger door of the vehicle was violently kicked open. “I heard a shotgun rack and had just enough time to think, ‘Oh, shit! I’m going to be shot at and hit or shot at and missed,’” Weitzel recalled.

In the same instant, a male “combat rolled” out of the vehicle. “The next thing I knew, I saw an orange burst of light … like fireworks going off,” Weitzel said.

Weitzel later discovered the blast came from a 20-gauge shotgun. The pellets hit him hard in the chest and stomach – knocking him backward and down. As he fell, his head slammed against his squad’s bumper and he landed on the ground unconscious.

The aftermath

“I woke up 35 to 40 seconds later and saw three men jump into the vehicle and drive off at a high rate of speed,” Weitzel explained.

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Photo courtesy of Tom Weitzel

Weitzel was dazed but his training kicked in. Squinting away blood from his eye, he drew his Smith and Wesson Model 19 revolver and tried to use his lapel mic to radio in the situation as the car disappeared into the night. His portable radio did not work, because the shotgun blast had cut the cord leading from his lapel mic to the radio.

“I felt like I had a heart attack,” he said.

He fought through the pain to crawl to his squad and use his squad radio to call in the situation, the description of the vehicle and its direction of travel. He also requested an ambulance for himself.

As he waited for the ambulance, Weitzel did a self-check and discovered his vest, reinforced by the ballistic plate, took a direct hit and saved his life. However, he was hit in the eye with pellets, which created a great deal of pain and partially blinded him. In the fall after he was shot, he not only slammed his head into the bumper of his squad but also broke three ribs.

He was transported to Loyola Hospital in Maywood, Ill., by paramedics. The suspects were not located in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. However, Weitzel shared that one damaging aspect of his post-shooting experience came about when he was “ambushed” a second time by his chief, who had no idea how to respond to one of his officers being shot in the line of duty.

“Why didn’t you call for backup and why didn’t you return fire?” the chief asked Weitzel.

“It seemed to me that the chief’s investigation was designed to find fault with what I did rather than what was done to me,” Weitzel said. “No one calls for backup to issue a parking ticket and you can’t return fire when you are unconscious. I was ambushed!”

By policy, Weitzel was sent to see a psychologist after the shooting.

“The psychologist was someone who had never dealt with a police shooting before. During the third of five sessions in this process, the psychologist brought in a hypnotist,” he recalled.

During the “treatment” by the hypnotist, Weitzel told the man honestly: “Doc, I’m not under. This is not working.”

“You are not being cooperative,’ the hypnotist suggested.

Weitzel’s chief later deemed the hypnotism to have been unsuccessful because he was “uncooperative.”

Despite all this, Weitzel described the support from his fellow officers and immediate supervisors as being “wonderful” post-shooting.

Returning to work

Six weeks after being shot, Weitzel returned to work changed by his experience.

“After I came back to work, I felt this situation was handled wrong, but I was not in a position to say anything about change. I decided the only way to make a change was to go up the ranks. I felt strongly that officers needed to always be treated with respect by their commanders and this situation made me think that we can do better than this.”

When Weitzel spoke about someday becoming a commander with his lieutenant, he learned of a program nearby if he went back to college and got an “A” in each class he was taking, then the village would pay for the cost of the class.

After being told of this program, Weitzel returned to college (while still working) and eventually turned his associate degree into a master’s degree. He also attended the command training at Northwestern University, as well as the 218th Session of the FBI National Academy.

Weitzel went on to serve his fellow officers as a sergeant, then lieutenant and, in 2008, he was appointed as chief of the Riverside Police Department – serving in this capacity until his retirement in 2020 after 39 years in law enforcement.

Years after the ambush, a criminal who was in custody of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms tried to improve his situation by offering up information on Weitzel’s shooting. It was discovered that Weitzel pulled up on that illegally parked car right after members of a criminal gang exited it to commit a home invasion. The driver, armed with a 20-gauge shotgun, had remained behind, hidden in the vehicle and ambushed Weitzel as he approached to get the VIN for his parking violation.

Sadly, the information came after the statute of limitations had expired. However, some consolation can be taken from the fact that Weitzel’s chance intervention may have saved lives by preventing the home invasion.

Love of law enforcement is contagious

Anyone who talks to Weitzel will discover one thing is abundantly clear: He loves law enforcement and the officers he served. This must have been contagious for he was followed into law enforcement by not one but by all three of his sons. Alex and Peter are officers with the North Riverside Police Department and his son Matthew is an officer for the Lockport Police Department.

In retirement, Weitzel has been focused on getting legislation through to make the murder of a police officer a federal offense. Additionally, he serves as a volunteer ambassador for the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund. He counsels agencies on how to get a fallen officer’s name on the memorial, as well as aiding families in receiving benefits after losing a loved one in the line of duty.

“This is a way to continue to serve the profession I love,” he said.

Most would assume that being shot in the line of duty – and then treated unfairly by his commander following the shooting – would lead to negative consequences.

However, because of Weitzel’s positive attitude, he chose to react positively to this negative experience. He sought out positions on his department to implement changes that would make it a priority that every officer who served alongside him was treated with dignity and respect by their commander not only in the best of times, but also in the worst of times.

If Weitzel’s story demonstrates anything, it is this: Everyone has response-ability.

That is the ability to respond to experiences negatively or positively.

Weitzel’s story proves the character of a man can’t be judged by how he gets knocked down, but what he does when he gets back up!

Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. Marcou’s awards include Police Officer of the Year, SWAT Officer of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year and Domestic Violence Officer of the Year. Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. Additional awards Lt. Marcou received were 15 departmental citations (his department’s highest award), two Chief’s Superior Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Medal for his response to an active shooter. He is a co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters,” which is now available. His novels, “The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop,” “SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor,” “Nobody’s Heroes” and Destiny of Heroes,” as well as his latest non-fiction offering, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History,” are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.