WESTCHESTER – April Padalik wanted to be a police officer as much as any toy gun-wielding little boy, but when she became one, that didn’t really matter.
Padalik grew up in Chicago and Berwyn watching cop shows like Hill Street Blues and Police Woman. The oldest of six children, she took her role seriously.
“I was always told as the oldest that I was the protector … and that was ingrained heavily in my upbringing,” she said.
By 18, she was a security guard and undercover investigator at a mall in North Riverside where she blended in well with young shoppers, helping her catch quite a few shoplifters. Soon, she landed at the Chicago Police Academy, where she was one of about five women in a class of 30.
On weekends, she was assigned to the city’s Austin district. When she reported, her commander looked at her like she was insane. Later that night, she ran down two men who had tried to steal a vehicle in an alley. She wasn’t wearing a uniform, and when backup officers arrived, they thought she was one of the suspects.
"Already, I had a reputation when I came to Westchester,” Padalik said.
That was in 1983, the start of a 30-year career in the village. In 2010, Padalik became Westchester’s first female chief of police, decades after becoming its first female officer.
"It was definitely the good old boy network,” said Padalik, who retired June 30. “The chief I had at the time was an old school product of the ‘40s and ‘50s and an ex-Marine. It was an experience. It was culture shock.
"I think a lot of people were waiting for me to fall on my face."
That never happened. Padalik collected about 20 awards over her career and played a role in several high-profile cases, including the conviction of Omar Johnson in the 1996 murder of Dorothy Jewula at a KFC restaurant in Westchester.
"She held her own," said Westchester Village President Sam Pulia, who was a fellow officer of Padalik's for 20 years. "I can recall a time she was in a traffic stop and the offender actually roundhoused her and knocked her to the ground. She got right back up and proceeded to use the necessary force to effect the arrest, pretty much all by her own."
Most female police officers, though, don’t work for the full thirty years – when pension maximizes – that Padalik did, she said. Only 2 percent of female police officers nationwide become chiefs, and Padalik was one of about five in Illinois, including Western Springs’ Pam Church.
"I think women start out in the profession and as we progress, [we] become mothers and marry and try to have a family,” Padalik said. “It's a difficult career for anyone … to balance the schedule."
Padalik, 53, would now like to work in the corporate world, possibly a management role in retail security. But for now, she’s taking some time to catch her breath and get some things done at her Lemont home.
“I am very action-oriented. I am a very hyper person,” she said. “I don't sit still long, even in my older years."