Passing of the Blue Torch: Chief Neff calls it a career
On March 13 of next year, just a week and a half shy of his 36th anniversary of service to the City of Merrill, police chief Ken Neff will stroll out the doors of the Merrill Police Department for the last time.
A native of Minocqua, Neff credits his father and former Minocqua Police Chief, Orville, a 25-year member of the Minocqua Police Department – 13 years as police chief – and older brother, Ralph, for choosing law enforcement as his career path.
“Ralph served under my father as an officer with the Minocqua Police Department,” Neff explains. “He was later appointed police chief for the City of Washburn and eventually served several terms as the Sheriff of Bayfield County. Growing up and listening to he and my father discuss their jobs and the stories they shared, really steered me in the direction of pursuing law enforcement at a pretty young age.
“My dad always had a way of communicating with people, he could talk to anyone. He was a firm believer in treating everyone fairly and he instilled that in me at a young age; to treat people with respect no matter what path they have chosen in life. I carried that message with me as I grew up and eventually into my own law enforcement career.”
Following graduation from Lakeland High School in 1977, Neff immediately moved on to what was then known as the Police Science Program at Northcentral Technical College. Following graduation in 1979, Neff attended what was then a 240-hour police academy at NTC.
After the training academy, Neff went to work for 2½ years at the paper mill in Tomahawk, before joining the Merrill Police Department on March 22, 1982.
“It was a whole lot different back then when you are first hired, than it is now,” Neff adds with a chuckle. “My very first day on-duty, I was given a pair of keys, paired up with a senior officer and sent on my way. Back then you were basically thrown into the fire and learned by the fire. I rode along with another officer for about three weeks and then I was completely on my own. Law enforcement agencies and officers are very fortunate now with the advancements in field training, as well as training in the police academy.”
The training curriculum for police training statewide has now increased to 720 hours, or 18 weeks. Field Training and Orientation (FTO) now consists of newly hired officers being paired with not only senior officers, but senior officers who have underwent specialized training of their own.
In Neff’s case, he was on solo patrol by late April and found himself responding to his first motor vehicle accident in early May.
“Scheduling was a lot different back then too,” he adds. “When I first started, officers came in and finished their shifts at various times throughout the day and night. In between those times, there was always an officer on-duty of course, but that officer was alone. I remember my first day working alone and one of the other officers saying as he was leaving for the day; ‘Someone will be here in a few hours, just don’t get into any trouble until then’.”
On one of those days, Neff was dispatched to a rollover crash on Pine Street in the 6th Ward.
“Granted we didn’t have as much work to do at crash scenes as officers do now, but when you’re a new officer responding to your first crash alone, it sure seemed like a lot of work while learning by the seat of your pants.
“In the case of that crash, the ambulance had already transported the injured to the hospital, so for me it was a matter of doing the best I could to gather information, take measurements and put it all into a report. If the report wasn’t deemed acceptable by the Lieutenant on duty, then we had to start over from scratch.”
A few months later, 23-year-old Officer Neff found himself en route to another first while alone; a domestic disturbance.
“It’s definitely a little scary responding to your first call like that by yourself, but that night I was fortunate to have the assistance of veteran deputy Ron Hirte, from the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office. He happened to be on-duty that night and showed me the ropes. I was very grateful to have his help that night. That was a call I would rather not have learned by the seat of my pants.”
Another aspect in the early portion of his career which stands out for Chief Neff, are the overnights spent on patrol.
“I found it interesting how I was out there patrolling, checking doors and other duties at all hours of the night, while everyone else was asleep. They had no idea I was even out there. When they were waking up, I was headed home to get some sleep.”
When asked of the highlight of his career, without hesitation Neff cites working with children and the community.
“I credit retired officer Rick Hermsen who was also our DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) at the time, for first exposing me to working directly with members of the community and area children,” Neff explains.
“Rick was a member of the Optimist Club and got me involved with the club in 1994. I loved it from the start. I had always had a passion for working with people thanks in part to what I learned from my father and after joining the Optimist Club I discovered how much I enjoyed working with children.”
Then in 1997, Hermsen retired from the department, leaving the DARE Officer position vacant. Neff quickly stepped into that role.
“Without a doubt, working as a DARE Officer was the highlight of my career and definitely created some of my fondest memories. To work with children and have them get to know me not only as a police officer but as a human being was very, very rewarding and impactful for me.”
Ironically, Neff cites a particular experience while serving as DARE Officer as one of the most troubling moments of his career.
“I was giving a DARE lesson one day to a class and was describing a general circumstance I had encountered as a patrol officer,” Neff explains.
“Without giving any names or speaking directly about anyone in particular, a young lady in the class picked up on what I was discussing, was related to her father. When the lesson was over, the young lady came up to me in tears and apologized for how her father had been involved. I don’t think I will ever forget that day. It really had a profound effect on me to have that sort of outcome while attempting to have a positive influence on my students.”
Neff remained in the role of DARE officer until his promotion to Lieutenant in 2004. Then in 2006, he was appointed as the first-ever School Resource Officer for Merrill Area Public Schools until his promotion to Administrative Captain in 2007, upon the appointment of Ned Seubert to Police Chief.
Upon Seubert’s retirement in 2012, Ken Neff was appointed Chief of Police by the city’s Police and Fire Commission, effective April 1, 2012.
“Of all days to begin my career as chief of police, it was April Fool’s Day,” Neff jokes.
From the very start of his tenure as police chief, Neff emphasized a focus on promoting police department-community relations hoping to break down barriers.
“I felt it was very important to focus on getting the department as a whole, more involved in our local community. I wanted to break down invisible barriers of sorts, which can often-times exist between community members and police officers. On the community side, citizens may often view officers as unapproachable due not having much contact with officers aside from professional contacts. On the flip side, the same can be said for officers. I wanted to help officers step out of their comfort zone. Officers may sometimes be reluctant to get outside of their patrol cars and interact with members of the community, outside of professional contacts.”
Neff wasted no time in organizing the department’s first ever Crime Prevention Initiative in the fall of 2012.
The following summer, the department partnered with area agencies and groups in organizing the first-ever Community Night Out event. Then in the Spring of 2014, thanks in large part to the generous support of the Bierman Family Foundation, the department introduced another first, with the arrival of Officer Eros and promotion of officer Matt Drabek, to form the department’s first ever K9 unit.
During 2013 and 2014, another collaborative effort between Neff, members of the department and community members yielded the Citizen and Student Police Academies.
“The ultimate goals of the Community Night Out events and Crime Prevention Initiative were to bring community members and officers in direct one-on-one contact with each other,” Neff adds.
“The goal of the Citizen Police Academy was to take that a step further by educating the public on department operations and showcasing daily law enforcement operations. The Student Police Academy was unique in its purpose as a recruiting tool. Our goal with that program was to engage local students and encourage them to return to Merrill after college and join the police department.”
Looking back, Neff considers his goal and vision accomplished.
“I think a prime example to the success of our community based initiatives came this past Halloween, when we had officers take it upon themselves to park their patrol vehicles and spend time with local children trick or treating. Best of all they did this without prompt, whereas a few years ago this may not have happened unless they were asked to do so or assigned. I feel that is a testament to the fine crew of officers we have, who genuinely care about their local community. Activities we have been involved with in the community really allows our officers an opportunity chance to express that.”
Neff states there has also been a noticeable difference with community response on social media.
“Via social media we have noticed local citizens seem to be much more comfortable approaching us with questions and expressing positive feedback. The overall level of interaction between officers and community members has drastically increased and we couldn’t be happier.”
Although the last four years have been eventful, Neff readily admits the challenges facing a police administrator and even more so in looking to the future.
Of those challenges, Neff cites the tragic chain of events to affect the law enforcement profession over the last couple years.
“Due to the negative climate surrounding law enforcement on a national level, a real danger exists out there for police administrators…” he adds with a somber sigh. “As an administrator there is a genuine fear of such tragedy striking your own department. By no fault of your officers, tragedy can strike by the sheer will of someone wishing to do harm. With that being said, emphasizing training and preparedness is important now, more than ever. But it’s just as important to remember as an officer and as an administrator, you must still provide a service to your community.
“Being tactically sound is very important in protecting yourself and fellow officers. But there is a fine line that can be crossed between being tactically sound for your own protection and coming across as unapproachable, which can negatively impact those you have contact with in the community on a daily basis.”
Bennett tapped as new chief
As for the future of the Merrill Police Department, Neff will be passing the reins to Administrative Captain and 14-year department veteran Corey Bennett.
A native of Peoria, IL, Bennett is a 1997 graduate of Western Illinois with a Bachelor of Science degree in Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Administration. Shortly after graduating college, Bennett and wife Andrea relocated to Merrill and in January of 1998, he was hired by the Merrill Police Department as a dispatcher. The following July, Bennett progressed to the patrol division.
Bennett remained a patrol officer until his promotion to Captain in 2012, upon Neff’s appointment to police chief.
“I have always had family in the area,” Bennett said. “I first visited the area when I was pretty young and I loved it. As I got older I knew I wanted to someday move here. After graduating college and getting married, we decided the time was right.”
With the exception of a brief period of time spent relocating to Illinois due to urgent family circumstances, like Neff, Bennett too has spent his entire law enforcement career in Merrill.
With 18 years of experience under his belt, four of those in an administrative position, Bennett stated he is excited for the next chapter in his career. But readily admits stepping in for Neff will come with challenges of its own.
“Stepping in for someone as recognizable and well respected as Ken won’t be easy by any means,” he explains. “There aren’t many people in the area who haven’t met him or don’t know who he is. He has done so much for the community and the department in his career, especially during his term as chief of police. I am obviously a different person, but I look forward to stepping into the chief role as well as those same roles in the community as Ken has.”
While he readily admits he has no intention of making any wholesale changes, one of the key aspects Bennett looks most forward to, is building upon Neff’s focus of being responsive to departmental and community needs.
“First and foremost, I look forward to maintaining the community based programs we have in place such as Community Night Out and the Citizen Police Academy,” the 41-year-old father of two explains. “These programs have been so beneficial to both the department and community in so many ways. As long as we can continue to draw an interest from the community, these programs won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
“One of my key duties as an Administrative Captain has been troubleshooting various issues as they arise on a daily basis. As chief I look forward to taking on troubleshooting in a broader role. I’m interested in taking a look at various methods to improve departmental operations and efficiencies, which will ultimately result in better service and being more responsive to our local community.”
Examples Bennett cites include consideration of updating the current department records system as well as the possible addition of a Drug Investigator.
“Responsiveness is very important to us as it is one of our five guiding principles as a department as well as a key principle of our department vision. Updating the records system could translate to more efficient communication and ultimately a higher level of proactivity by our officers in the community. If we were to create a Drug Investigator position, the goal would be for the officer or investigator to devote 100% or his or her time, or at least a majority of their time, strictly to drug investigations.”
Bennett echoes Neff’s concerns over the current negative climate surrounding law enforcement, as he steps into the pilot seat of the department.
“The current negative climate surrounding the law enforcement profession, stemming from mainstream media, will be a challenge without a doubt. But I am very proud to admit we have the exact opposite climate on a local level. I feel we have a very supportive local community as a whole. Our community has embraced the various initiatives and programs we have brought forth as a department recently, such as the K9 program and Community Night Out for example.
“Recruiting has been another aspect of our profession impacted not only by recent negative trends, but also by recent standards handed down at the state level. Changes in those increased standards include extended training time, increased cost and changes to the training curriculum. Although we have yet to feel those effects locally, potential impact remains in the back of our minds. Thankfully we have been very fortunate with our recruiting to have found the high quality of officers which we have.”
As his final day behind the shield draws closer, Chief Neff readily admits leaving the department and entering retirement, will be anything but easy.
“It was fun to joke about at first, when I first considered retiring,” the 57-year old outdoors enthusiast adds. “But now that I made the announcement and marked the date, it is becoming very real. Recently I was speaking with one of our officers who will soon be switching to the night shift. I told him ‘we’ would miss him on day shift, but as soon as I said that….I realized I wouldn’t be here when that time comes. I think that is when the reality of retirement really set in. But I know it’s time.
“Due to the advancements in the profession, especially in terms of technology, I know I can no longer go out there, get into a patrol vehicle and carry out the duties of a modern day law enforcement officer. It’s been said, you just know when that time has come to step away and I know now, that time has come.
“I’m looking forward to retirement and making up for lost time, but there are many things I will miss. I think the hardest part will be no longer being a part of the lives of my co-workers and no longer being a part of a department I have called home for the last 35 years. I will no longer be the ‘go-to’ guy for questions from members of our community. I will miss that dearly, but I hope to maintain the wonderful contacts and relationships I have formed in the community over the years.”
While Neff may be a leaving a great deal behind him upon his exit in March, he is quick to point out the many aspects of the busy retirement years which lie ahead.
“Retirement is shaping up to be anything but quiet,” he adds with a chuckle. “My wife Lori has plans for me in catching up on years worth of past due projects around the house and I have a lot of time to make up at our cabin up north. Then there is turkey hunting I have to catch up on as well as making maple syrup. My grandchildren are getting older now and are very active in various activities so I definitely will make catching up with them a top priority!”
Reflecting on 35 years of service to the City of Merrill brings a mix of emotions to Chief Neff. But what he cites as the one aspect of his service, which stands taller than anything else, is the community which made his service a true privilege.
“This community has given me the rare privilege of having the perfect law enforcement career,” he adds. “I can’t think of a better place to spend my career and raise a family. Merrill was the perfect place for Lori and I to raise our family. My career started and came to an end in Merrill, I couldn’t be happier about that. It has been a true honor to serve the Merrill community for the last 35 years.”