RACINE — Former Racine Police Chief Richard “Dick” Polzin, a pioneer in local community policing, has died.
Polzin died Tuesday night from a heart attack, Racine County Medical Examiner Michael Payne confirmed Wednesday morning. He was 74.
Polzin is credited with starting the community-oriented policing (COP) model. It included establishing COP houses in the community to work directly with residents proactively rather than just responding to calls and problems.
It was a model that was considered “bold” at the time, said Payne, who worked under Polzin.
His death is a “tragic loss for the community … just devastating,” Payne said.
The network of six COP houses Racine now has in place began under Polzin’s leadership in the early 1990s.
“The record-low crime rates we currently enjoy today were made possible through the visionary leadership and COP groundwork laid out by Chief Polzin,” the Racine Police Department stated in a news release.
In a statement, Racine Police Chief Art Howell further elaborated saying, “Chief Polzin leaves behind a legacy of service and dedication to the Racine Police Department and the greater Racine community at large. As an organization, we are grateful for his significant contributions to the law enforcement profession.”
A family man
Polzin leaves behind a legacy for the community, both through the COP houses and his family. It includes three sons who went into public service in Racine, two on the police department, Michael and John; and one with the fire department, Mark.
Polzin also leaves behind a daughter, Ann Pettit, who works for Johnson Bank; his wife, Shelia; and 10 grandchildren.
In a statement, Polzin’s family said, “We’d like to thank everyone for their overwhelming show of support during a difficult time for our family. It’s so rewarding to see the positive impact our dad had on so many people’s lives.
“His commitment to excellence within our police department and peace in our community was second only to the love he showed our family,” the family continued. “His professional accomplishments never compared to the husband, father and grandfather he was to our family.”
Polzin’s policing start
Born and raised on Racine’s south side, Polzin graduated from Park High School in 1960. After a stint at what was then called Johnson Wax, he worked at a plating shop. Later, he took a job at Young Radiator as a sweeper, then a fin press operator, according to Journal Times archives.
But in 1964, at the urging of a brother-in-law who was a cop on the Chicago Police Department, Polzin became a Racine police officer, according to Journal Times archives.
Through the years, he moved up the ranks, and in 1992 he started as police chief, a position he held until his retirement in 2000.
Joseph Muratore Jr., an attorney at 610 Main St., was president of the Racine Police and Fire Commission when Polzin was appointed chief.
“I remember well that what most impressed the commission was the vision (Polzin) expressed for what he wanted to accomplish as chief,” he said. “His vision was of an inclusive department that went well beyond the role of traditional policing … He epitomized the concept of dedicated and honest public service.”
As chief, “He was able to carry through that vision and find the resources in the community to assist him,” Muratore added.
In an interview before Polzin retired, he recalled a time in the late 1960s and early ‘70s when police drove around with taped windshields so that if anything was thrown at them, the windshield wouldn’t shatter.
His memories of a community in chaos helped him develop his community policing philosophy.
“I’ve lived in Racine all my life,’’ Polzin said. “I remember (the community policing) areas much different than they were in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The dream I’ve always had is to bring those areas back to the way they were.’’
Leaving a legacy
City of Racine Mayor John Dickert said the community policing model is one of the major reasons why the crime rate has decreased.
“He will go down as the person who brought this foundation of community policing,” Dickert said. “We maximize the foundation that Chief Polzin brought.”
After his retirement, Polzin continued to support the law enforcement function through his leadership role with the Racine Community Outpost, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates the various COP houses.
In a statement, Howell said, “I am personally grateful for his mentorship throughout my career. Chief Polzin was a consummate professional, innovative department head, and a servant leader. His impact on the Racine Police Department will live on through those of us who served under his tenure.”
Ricardo Torres of The Journal Times contributed to this story.