hen Jim Ryan retires as Forest Park’s police chief on May 15, he’ll do so with the satisfaction that he was instrumental in transforming a department in “disarray” into an organization that is professional, connected to the community, and where officers want to come to work each day.
Ryan described the mess he walked into 12 years ago when he became chief:
“The previous chief had been terminated because of harassment issues; one of the deputy chiefs had been demoted due to sexual battery issues involving another officer. Although there had never been racial issues, there were factions within the department regarding the harassment problem, and there were a lot of people here to satisfy themselves. They didn’t put much effort into the organization and took a lot out. There were scams going on with overtime pay and funneling money to certain individuals.”
Mayor Calderone, who was one of the key people responsible for hiring Ryan, said, “His leadership abilities came at a very low point in our community, and he steadfastly reorganized the department, placed the right people in the right seats on the bus, and mentored the many young men and women who make up the department today.”
“Basically,” Ryan said, “it took me about four years to turn everything around.” One task was to create harmony and good morale in a department which was divided into factions. “Officers should look forward to coming to work,” he said. “We had to get rid of a lot of people who were disruptive — or they left of their own accord.”
Ryan has worked to maintain that atmosphere of professionalism during his tenure.
“I know we’ve been criticized through the media for sexual harassment issues while I’ve been here,” he acknowledged, adding, “They’ve come to light because we’ve dealt with them. When a person walks through my office door and makes a complaint, we jump on it. It’s my responsibility to resolve the issue and ensure that this is a place where people can come to work without feeling uncomfortable.”
As evidence of the morale in the department, Ryan said that he has not lost a single officer to another police department, even though the salaries in departments like the one in Arlington Heights pay $15,000 more than in Forest Park.
Sgt. Mike Keating described Ryan’s style from an officer’s point of view: “Jim is a cop’s cop, and as long as you do your job and take responsibility for your mistakes, he always gave the benefit of the doubt. Cops are human beings who have to make split decisions on the fly in tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving conditions. He always understood that, coming from the ranks. That is rare these days when cops are sometimes labeled as aggressive bullies. He will be missed.”
Chief Ryan did come from the ranks. He began his career as a cadet in Chicago in 1969, got his first job as an officer in Northfield in 1971, and then after two years moved to Des Plaines where he retired after 30 years doing “every job there was” from tactical officer to detective to chief. He added to that experience a master’s degree in Public Administration from Northwestern University.
After cleaning house in Forest Park, Ryan had the chance to replace the bad apples with what he refers to as “quality people” and mentor them for leadership. At the time he was hired, he said, the elected officials and the city manager told him they wanted the next chief to come from within the department. “I think we have groomed quite a few people for management,” he said. “Not only Tom Aftanas [Ryan’s replacement] but we’ve got some good commanders. They’ve all gone to Northwestern University for a 12-week course called Staff and Command School.”
The evidence technicians in the FPPD have also gone to Northwestern for an eight-week course in forensics. “We now have a very, very professional police department,” he said. “That was one of our goals.”
“People are happy here,” he said. “Morale is good. Productivity is good. Everybody gets along. Plus, it’s a good community to be a police officer in.”
Ryan is leaving the FPPD feeling good about what they’ve accomplished.
“I told the mayor that when I leave,” he said, “the department won’t miss a beat. I think we’ve brought people along and created a good management team.”
Regarding the challenges the new chief will face, Ryan said he will basically need to maintain the momentum already achieved in the department — the professionalism, training, hiring of good officers, and then bringing them along.
Another challenge is money.
“We’re strapped for money,” he said. “We’re supposed to turn over police cars every two years because they are out there 24/7. Our police cars are going on five or six years with 120,000 to 140,000 miles on them because we just don’t have the money to buy new ones.”
When asked if he intends to get a part-time job when he retires, he replied that he’s looked into working two or three days a week at a golf course, but when he found out he would have to work weekends, he stopped pursuing the idea.
“I have a lot of catching up to do,” he explained. “Being a police chief is a very stressful job. I missed a lot of my grandkid’s baseball games during the week because I had to be at work. I also have a summer house in Wisconsin I want to enjoy.”
“Time goes by too fast,” he mused. “It would be nice to slow it down a little bit and enjoy life because before you know it, it’s going to be over. I’ll miss the camaraderie of the officers, but I plan on staying active in the community, going to Groovin’ In the Grove and the Wine Walks.”
Officer Keating said his soon-to-be ex-boss can now work on his golf and had this advice to offer:
“Jim, stop chopping the club and follow through for God’s sake!”