West Palm Heat

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon in late May, Ric Bradshaw was ready to show off the support he'd garnered for his campaign for the sheriff's office in Palm Beach County. About 50 supporters had gathered just outside the Palm Beach governmental center in downtown West Palm Beach. Some were West Palm cops, and a handful of others were county deputies; a few were children of both. Several dozen had donned white T-shirts carrying the blue-emblazoned name of the Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association (PBA).

Bradshaw, the West Palm Beach chief of police until he retired earlier this year, lingered in front of the lectern, then turned and urged the group to shuffle closer together behind him.

"You're looking at a representation of the finest men and women in the county," Bradshaw declared to a reporter from the Sun Sentinel and a cameraman from WPBF-TV (Channel 25), the only media besides a New Times reporter that had shown up for this newsless news conference.

But Bradshaw's slightly jowly face didn't appear particularly happy or comfortable behind the microphone. Somber and reserved, in a print shirt and khaki pants over his slender build, he seemed eager to turn the mic over to leaders of the county PBA and Association of Police Chiefs.

Despite the air of vague gloom, though, things really seem to be going Bradshaw's way. With endorsements from the likes of Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel, long-time Palm Beach State Attorney Barry Krischer, and current Sheriff Ed Bieluch, Bradshaw assumes the status of one of two frontrunners in the crowded race to become the most powerful elected official in the county. One of his chief rivals, former undersheriff Ken Eggleston, is even pitching in unintentionally by appearing to unravel over a misguided flier that suggested last week that Bradshaw is soft on anti-Semitism. (Not so, asserted Bradshaw's Jewish supporters.) In a poll conducted by Survey USA and WPTV-TV (Channel 5), Bradshaw was running neck and neck for the lead with former sheriff's Capt. Fred Mascaro, each with 28 percent of the potential vote. Eggleston trailed with 19 percent, and seven others were far behind.

But there was still the little matter of race. How was a high-profile cop with a history of run-ins with fellow officers who were African-Americans -- and, according to some critics, a renegade "Dirty Harry" complex -- going to convey the requisite image of even-handedness in a county with 156,000 black residents? Bradshaw had reportedly cajoled several black officers from the West Palm Beach Police Department to make an appearance at the news conference, but none was there.

Bradshaw's tenure as police chief was marked by numerous charges of departmental racism by black officers, and several lawsuits alleging discrimination are still pending. Critics also point to Bradshaw's leadership role in past departmental abuses concerning the K-9 unit and street crime unit in the 1980s. Race is a sensitive area this year, all the more relevant because Sheriff Bieluch dropped out of the running in May after a brouhaha involving racist comments by deputies.

But wait. As Bradshaw's media event wound down, the candidate spotted Gary Mason, a black officer from his former department. Bradshaw darted over and ardently shook his hand. "I really appreciate you being here," the former chief gushed.

Maybe the sticky race issue would just go away after all.

Until Bradshaw responded emotionally to Eggleston's crude flier -- which used an image of graffiti superimposed on a badge in seeking to link Bradshaw with instances of anti-Semitism and racism in both the sheriff's department and the West Palm Beach police -- his campaign had been largely a series of grin-and-greet events. Attempts by New Times to get him to talk about some of the controversies that have centered on him during his tenure with the West Palm police were repeatedly rebuffed over a period of a month.

But Bradshaw's critics -- and, after 33 years with the department, they are plentiful -- are not so reticent. They paint a picture of a flamboyant, often-vengeful cop who has not hesitated to cross the line into questionable police tactics but who, with the help of tolerant superiors, has led a Teflon-coated career.

Bradshaw is one of the hometown boys in the race. He grew up in West Palm Beach and Lake Worth and graduated from high school in 1966. He attended Florida Atlantic University, then spent two years in the U.S. Marines. When he returned to Florida in 1971, he became a cop with the West Palm Beach Police Department, moving quickly up the ranks, becoming a detective sergeant by 1975. He advanced to lieutenant in 1979, made captain the next year, and was promoted to assistant chief in 1983. He worked as the right-hand man to several chiefs, then assumed that top job himself in 1996.