Oak Creek welcomes new police chief

Tom Ling to look at community policing, creative scheduling

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When Oak Creek's new chief of police, Tom Ling, came into town last week for his first day on the job, there may have been a hint of familiarity in the setting.

Ling, 58, is a small-town guy.

His last job as chief of police was in a town of about 1,200 people called Oak Hill.

Oak Hill is not up the hill from Oak Creek. It's in Florida, just south of Daytona Beach.

Ling's core of police experience comes from an 18-year stint between 1980 and 1998 as chief in another town near Daytona Beach called Lake Helen, which has about 3,400 people.

That just happens to be the same city where Oak Creek Town Manager Ray Leibensperger spent nine years as the town's clerk and quasi manager before heading to Oak Creek.

Leibensperger's relationship with Ling even proceeds Lake Helen. The two first met in 1971 in Longwood, Fla., where Ling was a young police officer and Leibensperger was the town's superintendent of streets.

"We have been friends for many years," Ling said. "But when we are working together, it's a professional relationship. He's the boss and that's the way it's going to be."

It's no secret that Ling came highly recommended by Leibensperger.

But the only official hand the town manager had in the hiring process was selecting the eight candidates, out of 33, to interview for the job. Interim Police Chief Eileen Rossi and police commissioners Charlie Bevan and Sonja Norris also worked with Leibensperger in that process.

From there, Ling was picked second for the job by the nine-person interview committee, which was made up of law enforcement officers and town residents.

After doing a background check on the first candidate, David LaRose, the Oak Creek Board of Trustees decided to interview Ling on May 22.

The board hired Ling two days later and he started work on May 28.

"The primary thing that I and the other officers liked about (Ling) is that he's done this successfully in a couple different departments," Rossi said.

Since Ling was hired, he said he has done his best to get to know the town and the people in it. Ling told Steamboat Today on May 25 that he plans to be strong in community policing.

"He's a good people person," Leibensperger said. "I've known Tom a long time and he is not going to be pushed around. But he believes in being fair to people."

Though there are some familiar elements in Oak Creek for Ling, the social aspect of the area is different than Florida, he said.

"These are the all-around nicest people here," Ling said. "It's a different atmosphere for me. Florida is 1,000 miles an hour. It's laid back here; I really enjoy that."

One issue that Ling inherits the responsibility of, which was

continuously addressed by former chief Dan Kelliher, is the workload the three-person department handles.

Last year, before Oak Creek Police Officer Todd Oparowski resigned, the town interviewed candidates in hopes to bring a fourth officer on board as a part-time animal control officer and part-time patrol officer. But Oparowski left and Kelby Kenney was hired to replace him in June of last year.

After that, explained Oak Creek Mayor Deb Van Gundy, the money to hire the fourth officer was used to up the salaries of the three officers.

"We wanted to bring it near the county's pay, so we could keep these guys," she said.

The downside was that the three officers, who work a total of 120 hours a week without going over a 40-hour work week, still had to cover 168 hours a week. Plus, the town is not liable to pay overtime because the department is less than five people, according to state law.

"When you only have three people, there is going to be some on-call time," Ling said.

When an officer isn't on duty, one is on call in Oak Creek.

"It's tough for everybody; that's why it takes commitment," he said.

Ling said he would like to hire a fourth officer to help cover the hours, but said they could make do with three.

"We just have to be creative with the schedule," he said.

A three-person staff is less than Ling is used to managing he had 10 people at his last job. Also, a police budget just less than $200,000 is smaller than Ling as worked with before.

However, he said a limited budget is something he knows how to deal with.

"I'm fond to say that I'm a good beggar," Ling said.

A close relationship with county and neighboring municipal law enforcement offices can be a fruitful one for small towns such as Oak Creek, Ling said.

Along with support services, larger offices can spare next-to-new equipment, which can be golden to small police departments, he said.

"You just need to be real resourceful," Ling said.

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