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Falls police chief reflects on career

12/26/2013 - West Side Leader
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By Ariel Hakim

Cuyahoga Falls Police Chief Tom Pozza is retiring Dec. 31 after more than three decades with the department.
Photo courtesy of Tom Pozza
CUYAHOGA FALLS — It’s been more than three decades since Tom Pozza began serving with the Cuyahoga Falls Police Department, starting as an unpaid college intern and rising up through the ranks to his current position as chief.

He’s set to retire Dec. 31 due to pension rules, but he’s not planning on leaving law enforcement, he said. It’s all he’s ever known, he said, and at 56, he’s now looking for a full-time teaching or leadership role in the same field. Over the years, he has also taught part-time at local police academies.

“I’ve got some irons in the fire,” said Pozza, a graduate of the 42nd class of the Police Executive Leadership College and the 226th session of the FBI National Academy. “I’m not ready for the rocking chair and shawl around my shoulders yet.”

The Cuyahoga Falls High School alumnus is closing a chapter that started in 1979 as he was finishing up a bachelor of science degree in criminal justice at Kent State University. After completing his college degree, in December 1979, Pozza was hired as a full-time special police officer, an unarmed public servant walking the city’s business district and acting as a liaison to businesses. He also wrote parking tickets, he said.

“I was like a glorified meter maid,” he said.

In May 1980, Pozza was sworn in as a regular police officer. Five years later, he became the department’s first undercover narcotics detective.

“There were drugs — let’s not kid ourselves,” he said, but in his undercover role, he was buying LSD, crack cocaine and marijuana, not methamphetamine and heroin, which are more prevalent now, he said.

In 1990, Pozza added another “first” to his résumé by becoming the department’s first youth division worker. After a year in that position, Pozza went back to detective work, investigating child abuse and sex crimes until 1995.

In 1995, he was promoted to sergeant and went back to patrolling the streets. Then after another year or two, he returned to the Detective Bureau as a supervisor, he said.

Pozza became a lieutenant in 2003, followed by another promotion, to captain, the next year.

In June 2004, Pozza worked what was perhaps his most memorable case, he said, when he and another officer arrested Joel Rhoten. Pozza was off duty and working security for the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority (AMHA) in Akron when a call about a shooting nearby went out. He was first on the scene and ended up confronting the gunman in the front yard of the location where the shooting took place, he said. Rhoten had killed his estranged girlfriend and her sister, with a 10-year-old as a witness, said Pozza.

Another officer arrived, and Rhoten fired a gun twice at Pozza, missing both times. Pozza said he doesn’t know how Rhoten missed.

“I was only about 25 feet away from him,” he said.

Pozza and the other officer returned fire, hitting Rhoten three times. Rhoten was injured, but lived, and is serving a life sentence in prison.

Prior to Rhoten’s arrest, Pozza began leading men’s mission trips to the Bowery Mission in New York City, serving the homeless and hungry alongside other police officers and friends. In his 12 years leading those trips, he has heard unbelievable stories of transformation among those who are helped at the mission, he said.

Pozza said his faith is important to him.

“I have felt God has kept his hand upon me,” he said.

During the span of his career, one of the most substantial changes he’s seen is the increase in speed at which information is received by the public, a shift that has both positive and negative sides, he said. Bad information can get out, spread quickly and frighten people, he said.

While a captain working part-time security in a high-rise for mostly retirees, Pozza said he noticed residents had a perception of crime around them as worse than it actually was.

“When I walked in, people were like, ‘Thank God you’re here,’” he said.

His theory is many elderly people hear about crimes like carjacking and murder on the news and all of a sudden, they’re afraid.

“The flipside is everybody is in the know now,” he said.

Back in the 1980s, when the “waffle shoe burglar,” nicknamed for the shoeprint he left on walls as his calling card, was menacing businesses in Cuyahoga Falls, he hit 50 or 60 businesses without it becoming common knowledge, noted Pozza.

“I would submit to folks that at least in Cuyahoga Falls, the crime [today] isn’t any worse than it ever was ... I think the perception is that it’s worse than it is,” he added.

In January 2011, Pozza stepped into the chief’s job. Though he has loved his job as chief, Pozza said he has missed dealing directly with “the crooks and knuckleheads,” and he doesn’t love the paperwork.

“Don’t forget where you came from,” is his advice to a new chief. “Don’t forget the officer on the streets.”

His other piece of advice to whoever steps next into the role as chief would be: “Don’t forget that your most valuable asset is your people.”

Pozza, a lifelong resident of Cuyahoga Falls except for a brief time in Stark County, is married and has two grown children. He and his wife, Kim, like to travel, he said, and they have plans for a Hawaii vacation. Future plans also may include buying some beach property somewhere, he said.

“The thing I’ll probably miss the most is the men and women of the Cuyahoga Falls Police Department I’ve had the pleasure to serve with,” he added. “I know that sounds cliché, but the police department has a great bunch of people that are dedicated to serving the people of Cuyahoga Falls to the best of their ability.”

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