When Police Chief Ned Seubert announced his impending retirement earlier this year, the Merrill Police and Fire Commission didn’t have to look very far to find the right man to take his place. Ken Neff, a 30-year veteran of the Merrill Police Department, was tapped to change his job title from Captain to Chief. It was a new challenge that Neff was eager to meet.
“I’m excited about this time I get to be the chief,” Neff said. “I’ve always been a community relations kind of guy.”
Neff was hired as a patrol officer under chief Charles Johnson on March 22, 1982. Neff, a native of Minocqua, was fresh out of recruit school at Northcentral Technical Institute. New officers at that time didn’t go through nearly the amount of hands-on training that they do now.
“That first week was terrifying,” Neff remembers. “I was the only officer on the road for two hours a day.”
He survived the trail by fire and was promoted from patrol officer to lieutenant in 1998, supervising the second and third patrol shifts. He was again promoted to captain, the department’s second in command, in 2007 when Rich Dabbert retired.
Neff has always been committed to programs that benefit the youth of the Merrill community. He served as the middle school DARE officer for 11 years, not only delivering anti-drug messages to students but also building relationships between law enforcement and young people. He also created the bicycle helmet promotions, did Officer Friendly presentations and has been the adult advisor for the Optimist youth organization, Octagon Club.
In 2004, Neff volunteered to be the city’s first School Resource Officer, working in both Merrill High School and Prairie River Middle School.
“I built the SRO program from the ground up,” Neff said. “We never had that assignment before. I wouldn’t want us to go without it now. We’ve built so many connections with teachers, administrators and it helped to foster relationships with students and parents.”
Having an officer assigned to the schools has also benefited the police department. Neff served as SRO for two years before taking on other responsibilities within the police department and handing the school duties to current SRO Mark Heckendorf.
“He handles a lot of calls in that community,” Neff said. “Having an SRO took a big workload off the dayshift officers. He knows that community inside and out.”
After his promotion to captain, Neff found himself immersed in administrative duties such as scheduling and payroll, and coordinating officer training.
“It was weird to cut that contact with the public and the kids,” Neff said. “That was different not to have day to day communication with the public.”
Neff had applied for the chief position after the departure of Chief Neil Strobel. Ultimately, Seubert was offered the job at that time. This time around, the Police and Fire Commission forewent the application process altogether and asked Neff to step into the office.
“The city decided to keep it in-house, it was natural progression,” Neff said.
Officially taking office on April 1, one of Neff’s goals is to improve communication both within the department and with the community. He plans to have regular conversations with administrative, clerical and patrol staff, including spending some evenings at the department to communicate with the night staff.
Communication with the public means continuing efforts started under Seubert. “Ned and I had the same kinds of goals,” Neff said. The department has a web page and a Facebook page on the internet. They also hold an annual Citizen Academy, which just graduated its second class.
“The real benefit for the department is to get officers to do the presentations,” Neff said. “I was really pleased with the eagerness of the officers to do that.”
In the Citizen Academy, participants learn about drug enforcement, emergency vehicle operation, crime prevention, use of force, investigations, and also get to ride along with an officer on patrol.
Another of Neff’s goals is to build up crime prevention and community service initiatives.
“We have a few officers interested in doing presentations on business security and personal security,” Neff said. “Both businesses and private citizens can gain through ways to prevent being victims of crimes.”
One of Neff’s first acts as chief was to promote young officer Corey Bennett to captain. At 53 years old, Neff knows his tenure as chief won’t be extremely long.
“Our goal is to get officers ready for leadership roles in the department,” he said.
He hopes that in the future the city again looks for leaders from within the department.
“Unless you have issues, it’s a much smoother transition,” he said. “We do have some very capable officers within this agency.”
As a police chief, Neff follows in the footsteps of his father, who retired in 1978 as Minocqua’s chief of police. In fact, law enforcement service runs deep in his family. His brother has also been a police chief and a county sheriff, his brother-in-law is the sheriff of Vilas County, one of his nephews is a Vilas County deputy and another is a captain with the Appleton Police Department. Ken’s son, Ryan, is carrying on the family tradition as an officer for the Appleton Police Department.
“My dad said I was crazy to get into law enforcement,” Ken said, ‘but I think it made him pretty proud.”