HOME

TO ADVERTISE

TO SUBSCRIBE

JOBS WITH US

  

Brothers in blue



the Reuther brothers

Law enforcement is in their blood: the Reuther brothers, from left, Steve, Brian and Tom, are now retired from their respective police agencies but remain active in facets of law enforcement in their community. JOHN BIONDO

Northern transplants policed the streets when times were rough and wild

BY PATTIE DURHAM

Little did three guys with thick New Joisey accents know when they landed in Florida around 40 years ago that their workdays as police officers would read like a page from a TV western as they found themselves rounding up stray cattle and horses and breaking up saloon fights between cowboys.

The Reuther boys grew up across the river from New York City, a fact that despite their many years in Florida is evident once they start talking.

In 1977, their parents, Thomas and Ruth, moved to Port St. Lucie with their youngest son, Steve. Their oldest son, Tom, was a member of the Cliffside Park Police Department and middle son, Brian, who has a bachelor’s degree in public safety from William Paterson College, was working for the Bergen County prosecutor’s narcotics task force.

After graduating from Fort Pierce Central High School in 1978, Steve followed his brothers’ footsteps into law enforcement when as a criminal justice major at Indian River Community College, he was offered a sponsorship to the police academy. He began his career as a reserve officer with the Stuart Police Department before being hired by St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office, working under Sheriff Lanie Norvell. He completed a training course and was hired right to road patrol in 1981.

BROTHERS REMINISCE

Recently, the brothers got together at Bobby’s pizza parlor and shared “war” stories from their varied careers. The three, who were raised as city boys, laughed as they recalled their encounters with various creatures in St. Lucie County, which was strictly a cattle-and-citrus rural area back then.

Steve said when he began work at the sheriff’s office, his commanding officer pulled him aside and asked him what he was wearing on his feet. Steve followed the officer’s gaze to his black work boots. “You need to get a pair of cowboy boots, son.” Then the officer told him to go out back and get a hat. Exiting through the back door, he found a group of cowboy hats that had been spray-painted green drying on the sidewalk. When his shift was over, he went to a local feed store and bought a new pair of “roach killers,” pointed-toed cowboy boots. Welcome to the Wild West.

“The former sheriff had some cattle in a pasture off South 25th Street,” Steve said, “and I got a call that there was a steer on the loose. I’m from New Jersey — I don’t know anything about cattle. But I answered the call and there was a big black steer with horns out to here (gesturing with his arms). I didn’t know what to do, I just knew I had to handle the call. After thinking for a few minutes, I got out my air horn. The noise was so loud it frightened the steer and he went back into the field.”

While visiting his family, middle brother Brian submitted an application with the Fort Pierce Police Department early in 1978 and in September of that year, he received a phone call offering him a position.

He, too, discovered that the calls in Fort Pierce in the late ’70s, were a bit challenging. A number of evening and midnight shift calls were for bar fights at Frankie and Johnny’s or ABC Liquors. Younger brother Steve chimed in, adding Jokers Wild, Evil People Lounge, the Tap ‘N Cue and Cue ‘N Brew were big call locations for the sheriff’s department.

Looking at a photo of the three brothers in uniform taken in 1979, Brian quipped, “Look at that 29-inch waist….and I would get sent on calls to break up bar fights between cowboys. You couldn’t wait, you just had to go in and take care of things.

“That’s when you learn you have to have good communication skills,” he continued. “You learn this is your best weapon (pointing to his mouth). It can get you into trouble and it can get you out of trouble.”

ORIGINAL PSL OFFICER

Brian cut his teeth on southern law enforcement in Fort Pierce before jumping on board with a new venture when the Port St. Lucie City Council voted in 1979 to form its own police department.

“I was one of the original nine officers,” Brian said. “Back then Port St. Lucie had a population of 12,000 residents, it was a lot of open land — then the city started to grow — we were dealing with tremendous growth. We started it all from scratch. Now, the police department provides a high level of services to more than 170,000 people.”

Port St. Lucie was a large city, land-wise, and city streets were planned and paved by General Development Corp. long before the city began to grow. As lot sales increased due to a huge marketing campaign by GDC in the Northeast, residents streamed into the city, yet there were large areas, especially in the southwest, with only a smattering of homes.

Patrolling this large area presented many problems for the fledgling department. Some regions, along with others in western St. Lucie County, provided ideal landing strips for planes with cargoes of drugs in the ’70s and ’80s.

PILOT TRICKED INTO LANDING

“In the fall of 1981, one of our officers was patrolling the streets of western Port St. Lucie and saw a van parked off on the side of the road.” Brian said. “When he stopped to see if the driver needed help, he questioned them and asked for permission to search the van. He found that the van contained large containers of aviation fuel and saw a ground-to-air radio setup, along with strips of lights.

“As backup officers headed to his location, he was instructed to have the two men set up the landing lights along Paar and Port St. Lucie Boulevard. After we arrived, a twin-engine plane landed about 100 yards from the van. The pilot got out and walked away — we never caught him. There was estimated to be $5 million in quaaludes on board. We called U.S. Customs and they came in and flew the plane away. The guys in the van, who were arrested, were from Broward County.”

When oldest brother Tom decided to hang up his shield with the Cliffside Park Police Department in 1988, he hired on with the PSL police and faced the same language problems his brothers had years earlier.

LEARNING NEW LANGUAGE

“I had to learn to speak to and understand the dispatchers,” he said, with a still-heavy New Jersey accent. “We (the dispatcher and I) both had accents, and with training and learning the 10-codes — it was like learning a new language.”

Tom also had encounters of another kind.

“Talk about wildlife,” Tom said. “I was on the job and drove up on all of these black things in the road and didn’t know what they were. Growing up in the city, I had never seen a buzzard and didn’t know what they were.”

Continuing, Tom recollected how things were in Port St. Lucie when he first arrived.

“There were a lot of streets paved west of the turnpike,” he said. “But there were only a few homes scattered about that area. Sometimes the street signs weren’t there or weren’t marked clearly. When I got a call for the Becker Road area, I would pull over and take out a city map to count the number of streets before a turn off the main roads. You just couldn’t rely on the fact that the roads would be completely marked.

“Once I got a call for a horse loose on Becker Road at midnight. We had to send units out so we could try to corral the horse before it was hit by a car or caused a serious accident on Becker.”

Brian laughed, remembering his own story about the horses of Becker Road.

FOUR-LEGGED ESCORT

“I was driving out there on the midnight shift once. The moon was full and lit up the roadways a bit. Driving along, I began to feel a presence. I looked to my right and saw a horse keeping pace with my car. It was inside the fence. I stopped, and the horse stopped. Then I started driving again and the horse kept pace with me, running along the fence.”

Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the departments were on different radio frequencies. The county’s dispatch office was on Browns Court. If Steve wanted to relay some information on a suspect or crime to the PSL department, he had to get off the road and find a telephone to call them. Later, when the county’s 911 center was centralized, all agencies were able to communicate freely, which helped the enforcement of laws throughout the county.

“The great thing about being in law enforcement is the ability to help people,” Brian said. “Port St. Lucie Police Department has a very active community-policing effort. It has been very beneficial to establish a strong partnership with our community.”

In 1992, Brian wrote an application for a federal grant for community policing awarded by the Department of Justice. Port St. Lucie Police Department was one of 40 departments around the country and one of seven recipients in Florida to receive the $525,000 grant. After implementing community policing in Port St. Lucie, Brian traveled around the state teaching the philosophy to other departments.

Brian started the field-training programs at the PSL department in 1982, adding that it helps the officers handle their duties with a greater deal of professionalism through a 16-week structured training and evaluation program. It provides them with a different way of dealing with crime.

“Now we use technology — using data — to drive decisions,” said Brian, who retired as police chief in 2012 and now works full time as the chief of safety/security for St. Lucie County Schools. “With computers we can find high-crime areas and work to impact them.”

TRAINING PROGRAMS INITIATED

Steve added that he has helped with in-service training for the sheriff’s department.

“When I started (back in the 1980s), I had two months of police training, a few days riding along with a senior officer, and then they handed me the keys to my patrol car and I was on the road,” he said. “We started training exercises at the SLCSO in 1994. Now, the department actually has full-time training personnel. Years ago, we had to pull people off the road for in-service training. It became one of our goals, that vision of full-time training staff.”

ince his retirement as a major with the sheriff’s office, Steve has become a reserve officer with the department and is a part-time adjunct professor for Indian River State College, teaching classes to future law enforcement officers at the Public Safety Complex. Things are very different now for these young officers going out on the road.

Tom, who became a civilian crime prevention specialist for the Port St. Lucie Police Department after retiring as a lieutenant in 2009, nodded in agreement. “I love working with the senior citizens on crime prevention. I feel like I can help them.”

Although there may not have been as many bar fights or loose cattle to chase down in New Jersey, there was no shortage of danger in Tom’s career. In New Jersey, he and his partner happened on a huge building fire, with gas explosions going on.

“We were first on the scene,” he said. “We had to go in to see if we could help rescue anyone. I even had to carry my partner out after he was overcome by the fumes.”

Tom was also deeply involved with another major arson case, this time in Port St. Lucie. In 2004, Hope Lutheran Church on Lennard Road was set on fire.

“We arrested a suspect who was standing around watching the arson,” Tom said. “I sat across from him during the police interview. I was watching him as I had a feeling he was up to something. They gave him a pen to write his statement. He took the pen, lunged across the table and went for my throat. I saw his movement and jumped up. That’s the only reason he didn’t stab me in the neck — he ended up stabbing me in the chest.” That attack made national headlines.

Nodding, Brian added that calls involving the mentally ill are always challenging.

“On one call in PSL, a mentally ill person had barricaded himself in the bedroom with a large knife,” he said. “We put a mattress in front of us for protection because he kept making slashing moves with the knife. Then, Junior Schmahl (another of the early PSL officers) got a fire extinguisher from his patrol car and set it off on the person. Everything was covered in white and we were able to subdue him. Years ago, you didn’t sit and wait for the SWAT team or any other special team, you just had to go in and take care of things.”

RESPECT KEY TO SERVICE

Thinking back on his years of service, Tom added, “The thing I always tried to do was treat people with respect — that’s the key.” Both brothers nodded in agreement. “We are the customer service representatives. We are the first ones they meet.”

Reflecting on the bad press their profession gets these days, Tom said: “I never worked with anybody who started the work day saying they were going to kill or harm someone. We never want that to happen.”

Brian chimed in, saying, “Most of the men and women in law enforcement want to do a good job and serve our citizens.”

In 1993, a state licensing exam was instituted for police officers. That, along with the policy of field-training has helped with the professionalism of law officers, according to the brothers.

When asked about the most rewarding part of their combined 114 years of service to the people in their communities, each responded a bit differently:

Tom: “I loved helping the people, especially the senior citizens.”

Brian: “I loved the job because every day was different. If you wanted to serve people, you were doing that every day.”

Steve: “As you put in your years, you see the people you have trained move on to leadership roles in the department. To me, that is gratifying. When I first started, leadership was autocratic — more of a military style. That has changed somewhat over the years through professionalism and improvements in training and hiring.”

All three agreed on the importance of a supportive family behind you. “We had great parents and our own families, all of whom helped us to be successful.”

And the next generation of Reuthers continues to serve: Tom has a son-in-law who is an officer with Port St. Lucie police and Steve has a son who was with Port St. Lucie police but is in training with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, while another son is a firefighter with the City of Stuart.

Not to be outdone, Brian says his son has a doctorate in psychology and is a professor at Indian River State College. He teaches the psychology class required for the IRSC Law Enforcement Academy Track students, among other classes.