MAHOPAC, N.Y. - After a distinguished 35-year career in law enforcement, Carmel Police Chief Mike Cazzari is hanging up his gun belt.

Taking advantage of an incentive program being offered this year by the Town Board, Cazzari will step down and retire from his position on July 31.

“I am going to miss the friendships and the camaraderie of the men and women I work with,” Cazzari said. “It is hard to do something proudly for 35 years and then not do it anymore. It’s not an easy decision but this is a young man’s profession, so you just try to go out on top.”

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Cazzari grew up in Lake Carmel and is a graduating member of the Carmel High School Class of 1980. For a while, he had thoughts of becoming an electrician, but police work was in his DNA.

“My dad, my uncle and my godfather were all cops,” he said. “And that is what I wanted to do. I did take some college courses to be an electrician and had the opportunity to work as an apprentice.”

Cazzari said the owner of the electrical company he apprenticed for couldn’t understand why he would turn down a potentially lucrative career to become a policeman.

“It’s not about money; it’s about service,” he said. “When you help others, there are endorphins, pleasure. There is really something there. So, I wanted to be a cop. I went to Dutchess Community College for criminal justice and took all the police tests and eventually got a job.”

That first job was a part-time position working for the town of Kent Police Department. He was 23.

The Carmel Police Department has recently had a spate of new hires, some as young as Cazzari was when he started.

“I feel proud when we hire these kids,” he said. “They are phenomenal people, not just good cops. They like doing it. We are hiring people to help the community.”

Cazzari got his first fulltime police job with the now-defunct Putnam Valley Police Department and then, six months later, moved to the Carmel PD. That was January 1986.

“It was such a great community and I wanted to work here,” he said. “We are blessed to live in such a wonderful area. It is a caring community that is in close proximity to cultural events and sports, and the best hospitals are right here. That’s why I’ve been here raising my family.”

In the ’90s, Cazzari became Carmel PD’s D.A.R.E. officer, a job he performed for eight years. In 2000, he was promoted to sergeant and then in 2002, he made lieutenant.

In December 2013, when then-Chief Mike Johnson decided to retire, Cazzari was named interim chief. Two years later, he was tapped as the fulltime permanent chief.

Cazzari said becoming chief wasn’t really on his radar, but he looked at the promotion as a chance to do some good and make some changes.

“I thought, you can’t really change things unless you’re in a position to do that,” he said. “I didn’t have a desire for power; I just wanted to make things better.”

At that time, the town was just recovering from the recession and was looking to make budget cuts. The police department was in the crosshairs and staff was being cut.

“The department was facing some drastic cuts and fortunately I had the skill set to accomplish that task and was able to still maintain the level of service and work with the county and state. You are forced to work with what you are given. You have to make it work for the residents. I work well with others and communicate. But this police department has such a deep connection to the community and there are high expectations. I wanted to bring that back. The community still loved us, but the politicians—not so much.”

These days, the Town Board has reversed course and the police department has now been staffed back to its original pre-recession levels.

“Things are good now; it’s great to see,” Cazzari said. “If you don’t feel safe, it doesn’t matter how beautiful the town is.”

With a full staff, the department is now re-energizing its community outreach programs so its officers can better get to know the populace it serves. One example is officers working with the school district’s Special Needs PTO to create a database of special-needs students. It’s meant to help first responders deal with such residents should they get a call. But Cazzari said that wasn’t his doing; his officers took the initiative.

“They did that on their own. I didn’t tell them to do that. I tell them, you have an idea, go do it,” he said. “So, we are bringing back community outreach. The PBA used to do the food drives and there was always something going on with these kinds of events. It’s important that [residents] see we’re not just here to write tickets. They have happy memories of meeting our cops at the firehouse and the fairs. We want to cultivate that. You don’t build trust overnight.”

While Cazzari’s time with the police department may be over, he hopes to continue his public service. He recently served a three-year term as a school board trustee but found that experience somewhat frustrating.

“There is not much you can change because Albany mandates so much,” he said.

So, perhaps a run for Town Board could be in his future.

“I would like to still serve and will continue to do it, and maybe seek elected office,” he said.

Looking back on his career, Cazzari said the common theme that jumps out at him is “honor and privilege.”

“I appreciate the support through all the tragedies,” he said. “The community comes together; it’s a loving community. It warms your heart, especially with all that is going on nationally. [Residents] come up and say how they support us and what a good job we are doing. We are so fortunate to have that here.”

Supervisor Ken Schmitt, a former cop himself, said he worked with Cazzari side-by-side in the police department before Schmitt retired from the force. He was the town supervisor when Cazzari was named chief of police.

“It was a pleasure working alongside him in the same squad, and he always took his job very seriously and served with a tremendous amount of integrity and compassion,” Schmitt said. “He truly cared about people and had a great work ethic. He had great law enforcement skills that helped him as he rose through the ranks.

“He was an outstanding chief of police and was the right person at the right time for the job,” he added. “He built and maintained an outstanding police department.”

Schmitt said Cazzari always focused his attention on his officers and encouraged them to be professional and to continue learning.

“He always provided them the necessary tools and training needed to perform their duties,” he said. “I’ve appreciated his leadership and professionalism—it always stood out. He has been a great community advocate.”

Schmitt also praised the way Cazzari helped rebuild the police department.

“His recommendations for new hires over the past years have always been great and now we have a great police force that has been molded by the chief,” the supervisor said. “We are going to miss him. It’s been an honor and privilege serving alongside him, not just as a police officer, but as supervisor. He is such an easy person to get along with.”

Schmitt said the Town Board is interviewing candidates to replace Cazzari but likely won’t make a decision by July 31 when the chief’s retirement begins. Lt. John Dearman will be made commanding officer to bridge the gap until a new chief is hired.  Cazzari said he urged the board to choose someone from within the police department for “morale purposes.”

“It shows support and confidence if they promote from within,” he said.

Meanwhile, Cazzari said he is ready for some much-need rest and relaxation before starting the next chapter in his life.

“I am looking forward to spending some time on the lake and playing some golf and spending time with the family,” he said. “My wife is happy about it. I have so many projects at home right now. I started redoing the bathroom three years ago and now I can finish it!”