Meet the people keeping Richmond residents safe

Meet the people keeping Richmond residents safe
Richmond police Chief Allwyn Brown acknowledges Officer Brandon Hodges (on right) for receiving the Officer of the Year award for the second straight year at the recent Kiwanis Club of Richmond Public Safety Awards ceremony at RPAL Headquarters in Richmond. (Photo credit: RPD)

No matter how dangerous the situation, Richmond police Officer Brandon Hodges doesn’t hesitate. For the benefit of keeping residents safe, he heads toward the sound of gunfire, not away from them, his colleagues say.

Richmond Fire Capt. Michael Rodriguez can relate. Serving the Richmond Fire Department since 2012, the Iraq war veteran and Purple Heart recipient helps to inpsire his fellow first responders with his bravery, high performance and dedication.

Hodges and Rodriguez are only a few examples of the finest and bravest who serve at the Richmond police and fire departments. But last year, they were known as the best of the best.

Their contributions were recently highlighted at the Kiwanis Club of Richmond Public Safety Awards Dinner, where Hodges was named Office of the Year and Rodriguez Firefighter of the Year.

The annual event, presented by Kiwanis Club and Chevron Richmond with additional sponsorship by Mechanics Bank, honors public safety professionals who go above and beyond the call of duty.

Ben Therriault, president of the Richmond Police Officers Association, speaks at the Kiwanis Club of Richmond Public Safety Awards ceremony at RPAL headquarters in Richmond.

Other award winners included Cheryl Cardenas, who was named Dispatcher of the Year and Mandy Swirsding, the Police Professional of the Year. RPD’s Special Project Section BRAVO Team won the Teamwork Award.

Here are their stories:

Richmond Police Officer of the Year

In the dark morning hours of Aug. 19, 2018, Officer Brandon Hodges was patrolling the area of Fred Jackson Way and Alamo Avenue when he heard the crack of gunfire. Without hesitation, he drove toward the sound. He saw an car on the move near 7th and Hensley, and pulled it over. With help from the trusted nose of the officer’s K-9 partner Gunnar, a suspect was arrested and a firearm recovered.

In a separate incident, Officer Hodges was patrolling with Officer Doug Gault when he noticed a speeding automobile narrowly avoid a traffic collision. The suspect vehicle didn’t yield to a traffic stop, and Hodges declined to give chase due to department policy on pursuits in such circumstances. But he didn’t forget.

Soon after, the officer would learn about suspicious activity in the Seacliff area — a neighbor reported a car traveling with its headlights off. He went there on a hunch. Sure enough, he found the suspect vehicle from the earlier incident unoccupied. A short-barreled shotgun could be seen on the driver-side floorboard.

The suspect connected to that vehicle would later be found hiding in some shrubbery — thanks, again, to the help of his trusted K-9 Gunnar.

For the ultra-vigilant Officer Hodges, such busts are common. In 2018 alone, Hodges recovered 30 firearms and made 61 arrests. It’s a testament to the power of just one individual (and his four-legged partner, of course) in making a community safer, according to the Richmond Police Department.

Officer Hodges, who serves the dual roles as canine handler and beat officer in the Central District, won Officer of the Year honor after being nominated and voted on by his peers. 

“Besides being excellent at capturing criminals, Officer Hodges is also well known throughout the department as being a great team player,” Richmond police Chief of Staff Lt. Matthew Stonebraker said. “Officer Hodges is a proven, well-rounded police officer. One who regularly exceeds in his duty requirements and one who has demonstrated a distinguished pattern of community service, combined with professional accomplishment.”

Firefighter of the Year

Richmond Fire Capt.Michael Rodriguez (image credit: Richmond Fire Department)

Richmond Fire Capt. Michael Rodriguez isn’t just firefighter of the year for 2018. He’s an American hero. From 2002-2006, he was a U.S. Marine Corp. infantryman and was deployed to Iraq twice for military operations, earning the Purple Heart after being severely wounded on the front lines. After recovering, he came home and served again, this time as a Richmond firefighter. Since joining the department in 2012, he “quickly gained recognition as a humble, competent and professional member of the team” and “role model to virtually everyone in our organization,” leading by example, fire officials said.

“From providing lifesaving medical care to an injured person on the street, or climbing tall ladders to rescue people from burning buildings, as a mentor, leader and friend, Capt. Rodriguez has always been there to serve,” fire officials said.

The captain is a Recruit Fire Academy Instructor, in large part as a result of his work ethic. Capt. Rodriguez’s work ethic is“without parallel; train to win, maintain your fitness, be thorough in every task, embrace the good and bad of the profession, and willingly serve those in need,” officials said.

Three years after becoming a firefighter, Capt. Rodriguez achieved the rank of Engineer in 2015 and was promoted to Captain in 2017.

Dispatcher of the Year

Richmond Police Chief Allwyn Brown right) praises the work of Dispatcher Cheryl Cardenas at the Kiwanis Club of Richmond Public Safety Awards ceremony at RPAL headquarters in Richmond.

Dispatcher Cardenas is another public safety official known as a hard-working team player. She worked a whopping 722 hours of overtime, answering the call 16 times to cover unforeseen vacancies. She even volunteers her time even beyond OT hours.

At RPD’s emergency call center, she’s a member of the department’s Crisis Negotiation Team, a tactical dispatcher for the Special Response Team and also trains new dispatchers.

“Dispatcher Cardenas consistently sets an example through her hard work, dedication, positive attitude, and quality customer service,” Stonebraker said.

Professional Staff Member of the Year

Mandy Swirsding speaks after receiving her award at the Kiwanis Club of Richmond Public Safety Awards ceremony at RPAL headquarters in Richmond.

Swirsding has been integral to the community’s safety as a Crime Prevention Specialist. She organizes meetings with the city’s neighborhood and business watch programs, crime-free housing program, and serves as a liaison to several community organizations.

“She has been instrumental in coordinating our Foster Care Youth Conference and plays an important role in our summer intern development program,” Stonebraker said. “Working in the Crime Prevention Unit requires working late evenings during the week and special events on weekends. Ms. Swirsding is an excellent team builder and you’ll always find her there ready to help.”

Teamwork Award

(From right to left) – Sgt. Lopez, Officer Terrell, Officer Bartley, Officer Souza and Officer Matsui.

The collective efforts of the Special Project Section BRAVO Team at RPD resulted in 60 separate special operations in 2018 aimed at complex crime and disorder problems. That helped produce over 100 arrests – as well as the seizure of 30 firearms.

That’s in part why the team consisting of Sgt. John Lopez and Officers Jesse Sousa, Lane Matsui, Alexis Bartley, and Jameiz Terrell, earned the Teamwork Award.

Officer Sousa also has a lead role with the mental health evaluation team, working directly with behavioral health clinicians in addressing police calls related to the disorderly conduct of those suffering urgent mental crisis. 

“Throughout the year, the Bravo Team has been the model of a high-performing team, producing impressive outcomes at harm reduction,” Stonebraker said.  “The Bravo Team is responsible for developing and executing District-specific problem-solving policing projects with an emphasis on community engagement, and based on crime and intelligence analysis.”