The manhunt for the shooter of a West Palm Beach cop had just entered its eighth hour when two detectives spotted a suspect walking down Hibiscus Street. It was just after daybreak in January 1976.
The suspect, wearing moccasins that fit the gunman’s description, followed an order and put his hands on the patrol car. One detective, a relative newcomer named Ric Bradshaw, stood behind him to pat him down for weapons.
What happened next unfolded in microseconds but would echo for 40 years.
In one desperate motion, the suspect pushed off the car, pulled a pistol from his front waist band and, without looking or even turning around, fired over his shoulder toward Bradshaw’s head.
“He got off two shots – Bang! Bang! The spit, the little lead fragments from the bullets, I could feel them nicking my face,’’ recalled Bradshaw, now the Palm Beach County sheriff.
“It was probably as close to death as I’d ever come. Lucky for me he didn’t aim and lucky for me I was moving in an opposite direction.’’
Bradshaw and his partner exchanged gun shots with the fleeing suspect. They hit the suspect at least twice, including one shot fired by Bradshaw that struck him in the lower leg, before police caught him two blocks away.
The incident was the first and most serious of three shootings Bradshaw would be involved in over a law-enforcement career that started in 1969. It would color his philosophy about the safety of the officers and deputies under his watch, first as West Palm Beach police chief from 1996 to 2004 and for the past 10 years as sheriff.
“Other than the military, it’s the only profession that when you leave in the morning, there’s no guarantee that you’re coming back. I think that’s one thing the public really doesn’t come to grips with,’’ said Bradshaw, 67, who also shot and wounded a suspect in one of the other two shootings.
He was West Palm’s assistant police chief when one of his officers was killed by a gunshot to the chest at point-blank range, fired by the driver of a pickup in August 1988. The officer, Brian Chappell, had left his protective vest in his locker because of the summer heat.
Bradshaw, 67, says he tries to make small-talk with many of the nearly 1,600 deputies under his command, often giving them a pat on the back that is by design: He’s checking to make sure they’re wearing their bullet-proof vests.
“I tell the deputies, ‘When you leave the house in the morning, you need to tell your family you love them because you don’t know you’re coming back. You have no idea what is going to happen out here.’ That’s the volatility of the job.’’
Some of Bradshaw’s critics wish he would communicate the same way with the ordinary citizens his deputies are sworn to protect.
They say many county residents, particularly minorities and the poor, harbor a deep suspicion of deputies, fearing some cops are too eager to pull the trigger. A year-long investigation by The Palm Beach Post and WPTV NewsChannel 5 has found questionable patterns in deputies’ uses of force after piecing together all of the officer-involved shootings in the area since 2000.
“It really scares me to think that anyone can be a victim of a police shooting,’’ said attorney Val Rodriguez, who has represented citizens in police misconduct cases for 20 years.
“(Bradshaw) always says that he wants his deputies to come home safe. Well, we also want our family members to come home safe and alive. It goes both ways.’’
Aim: Lake Worth chief
Bradshaw, often described as “a cop’s cop,’’ said he wanted to work in law enforcement since he was a kid.
Born at Good Samaritan Hospital in 1948, he was raised in West Palm Beach by a father who was the administrator of the juvenile court and a stay-at-home mom.
He graduated in 1966 from Lake Worth High School, where he played basketball. He remembers having his picture taken as a teenager sitting in the Lake Worth police chief’s chair as part of a career day field trip.
He recalled a local newspaper reporter that day asking him what he wanted to be when he grew up. “I said, ‘Well, probably a police chief here in Lake Worth,’’’ Bradshaw recalled. “What’s funny now is we actually are the police in Lake Worth.’’
Today, the sheriff’s office provides services for about 600,000 residents in the county’s unincorporated areas as well as more than 170,000 residents in eight towns.
Bradshaw says his department services all of the county’s 1.4 million residents, citing 1,000 calls a month to assist other police departments — from K-9 units and the bomb squad to helicopters and SWAT teams.
“At some point in time — it won’t be when I’m around — it will be one police agency,’’ he predicted. “When you stop to think about it, do you need 25 different agencies here?’’
‘Ice Man’ rises
Bradshaw comes from a family with military roots. His father served in the Korean War and a great-grandfather, who rode in the cavalry with the Marines in World War I, was decorated with the French fourragère, a prestigious military award.
Bradshaw enlisted in the Marines less than a year after landing his first job in 1969 with the West Palm Beach Police Department. He missed deployment to Vietnam by three days when President Richard Nixon signed orders pulling the Marines back.
He returned to the police force in 1971 and started his ascent. By 1975, he was a detective sergeant and in 1979 was promoted to lieutenant in charge of road patrol. He became captain in 1980, major in 1983 and assistant chief in 1985.
Bradshaw’s ability to focus on the job without getting rattled prompted fellow officers to give him a nickname — “Ice Man.’’
“He was always cool, like ice,’’ said retired West Palm Beach police veteran Ernie George, who has known Bradshaw for 40 years.
“What makes him tick is he loves the pressure of the job. He wasn’t just a pencil-pusher. He was a street cop who rose through the ranks. He knows what it’s like to get beat up. … He’s been there, done that. And he never forgot.’’
The “Ice Man” nickname was spot-on because of the authority he projects. “I told him he could dress up in a rabbit suit and walk into a room and they’d still know he was law enforcement,’’ said Bradshaw’s wife, Dorothy.
But Bradshaw’s police career was not without some controversy. He was suspended for five days in 1985 for violating department policy by entering an evidence room without authorization.
Several high-ranking police officials had accused Bradshaw of taking a gun from the evidence room but a state attorney’s investigation exonerated him. At the time, Bradshaw called it a political squabble between department factions.
Sleeps with his dogs
Dorothy Bradshaw’s first encounter with her future husband didn’t go well. She was the city’s purchasing agent and he was a police major who picked up the telephone one day to complain about a new fleet of squad cars.
“I had never laid eyes on the man,’’ she recalled. “He calls and says, ‘This is Major Bradshaw. The tires on the cars are wrong.’ I said, ‘I beg your pardon?’ We had this heated debate. I hung up on him.’’
They will be married 25 years next month. Both had been married before. Their blended family includes four children, four grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
“He is very caring and very compassionate. But he can’t project that in the position he is in. They’d eat him alive if they knew he was a softie,’’ Dorothy says.
At home, Bradshaw the “softie” does most of the cooking — from baked chicken to peppers and onions. “Cooking relaxes him,’’ Dorothy says, adding: “And he never uses a cookbook.”
He packs his wife a lunch every morning and he sleeps on a bed shared by their two dogs, a Yorkie named Katie and a schnauzer named Maggie. “They just love Ric. It’s like I don’t exist,’’ Dorothy says.
He’s usually up every day by 4:45 a.m. and in bed by 9 p.m. He runs on the treadmill and lifts weight every morning. He says he doesn’t watch much TV, but Dorothy says he makes time for one cop show — NCIS on Tuesday nights.
The couple’s other passion is charity work. They’ve raised money to fight diseases such as ALS, leukemia and cancer and to support animals. Some of those charitable events also are attended by the county’s political power brokers.
Among those whom Bradshaw has mingled or dined with: Palm Beach billionaire Bill Koch, Donald Trump and John Staluppi, a businessman who was accused decades ago of mob ties.
Toward the end of his reign as police chief, Bradshaw said he was prepared to retire and find a lucrative consulting job.
That changed one day when then-State Attorney Barry Krischer and Judges Walter Colbath and Marvin Mounts took him to lunch. “They told me we think you ought to run for sheriff because we think it needs to go on a different path,’’ he recalled.
Most powerful politician
He was elected sheriff with 56.7 percent of the vote in 2004, then re-elected with 89.1 percent in 2008 and 78.5 percent in 2012.
Bradshaw, a Democrat, has been helped by the county’s Democratic-majority voting bloc. But he’s also an effective political player who knows how to keep himself in the spotlight — from talking to the media at major crime scenes to peddling his “sheriff for a day” prizes that often raise five-figure sums for charity.
“The sheriff is everywhere. He doesn’t need to go through the typical power brokers and condo commandos. He goes directly to the people,” said Blake MacDiarmid, a Republican political strategist.
In the 2012 campaign, Bradshaw raised $340,000 for a job that pays $163,136 a year.
“He is the most powerful politician in Palm Beach County right now,” said Krischer, who has an office at the sheriff’s headquarters, where he volunteers two days a week.
“He is just a — pardon my French — a no bullshit kind of sheriff. He just doesn’t play the game. He calls it like he sees it.”
Bradshaw said the sheriff’s department was “a train wreck” when he took office, the result of “turmoil” and a lack of stability from three sheriffs — his predecessor was Ed Bieluch — over the previous eight years. He is proud of replacing “1970s technology” with innovations such as cars that are “rolling offices” with laptops, automated ticket writers, printers and cameras.
But he is not sure about joining the trend toward body cameras. Although body cameras are being tested by corrections deputies, he said it would cost $18 million overall.
The sheriff’s office budget, including the jails, is $531 million, the county’s biggest operating expense. County commissioners have voiced concern that the budget has grown 68 percent since 2005, but they’ve had little influence.
“It would be nice to have county staff sit down at a public meeting with the sheriff and his budget director and open the books,’’ Commissioner Paulette Burdick said. “We have never had that opportunity.’’
Seeking another term
Bradshaw is running for re-election in 2016. If he wins, he said he wouldn’t rule out running again in 2020.
“I feel really good. I keep myself in shape,’’ said Bradshaw, who would be 76 in 2024. “As long as I think I can make a difference here, then I’m going to keep doing it.’’
Krischer said Bradshaw’s continued presence is more important than ever because of a recent wave of new prosecutors, judges and police chiefs.
“The criminal justice system in Palm Beach County as we have known and become comfortable with over last 30 years is moving on. He brings continuity to a system right now that is in flux.”
Bradshaw often can be seen on TV after officer-involved shootings. He says he thinks it’s important to get in front of the public as soon as possible to tell them as much as he can about what happened.
“I’m not going to make a judgment and say everything is good, everything was done perfect, because I don’t know that. What I am there to tell you is what I know to that point,” he said.
“The more you make it a secret or the more you decide we are not going to talk right now, the more suspicious people are that you are hiding something.’’
Bradshaw also knows some people will continue to eye his department with suspicion because of high-profile shootings nationwide.
“The sad part of what’s going on in America right now is people see the police as not humans. They see us in a different light, as kind of like robots … and we are out here to take their freedoms away from them when actually we are out here to do more to keep their freedom for them more than anybody else,’’ he said.