2009 Villager of the year – River Forest

In a July 2008 headline heralding the release of the Zoufal-Woods report on the state of River Forest’s troubled police department, Wednesday Journal asked bluntly, “Where’s the leadership?”

No one’s asking that question 18 months later.

Since taking over as the village’s chief of police on Oct. 1, 2008, Frank Limon has wrought a transformation within the department. Limon has mended and strengthened a broken chain of command, restored trust between the command level and supervisory and patrol ranks, and executed a top-to-bottom review and revamp of operations.

Limon brought with him a strong sense of accountability and a commitment to providing mentoring throughout the ranks – from command staff and supervisors and to the officer on the street. He also brought numerous innovations, some of which have already borne fruit.

All along, he has been required to institute budget and personnel cuts to an already understaffed patrol division. Despite those demands, he managed to allocate his resources in a manner that produced a 28 percent drop in serious crime in the first 11 months of 2009 over the same period the previous year.

For all that, Frank Limon is being recognized as Wednesday Journal’s 2009 River Forest Villager of the Year.

A departmental turnaround

The 21-page Zoufal-Woods report stated: “At the heart of morale problems is inadequate command presence and a lack of communication.” Numerous people with whom Wednesday Journal has spoken say that two of Limon’s numerous strengths are a fair but demanding command presence and excellent communication skills.

Limon spent over three years leading nearly 600 people in Chicago’s Organized Crime Division, which is responsible for suppression of gangs and drug trafficking. Prior to taking command of the organized crime division, he earned the Superintendent’s Award of Merit for authoring the Chicago department’s training manual for new police commanders and superintendents.

River Forest now benefits from that deep pool of law enforcement experience.

A common theme in Limon’s thinking is cooperation, both within the police chain of command and with his superiors.

Village Administrator Steve Gutierrez, who has wrestled throughout 2009 with dwindling resources, appreciates Limon’s skill set. “I think you made a great choice,” Gutierrez said of Wednesday Journal’s recognition of Limon.

“Chief Limon has worked very hard and very effectively to change the police department,” Gutierrez said.

Limon returned the compliment, calling Gutierrez “very supportive.”

“He really spends a lot of time trying to understand why we need to do what we’re doing to meet our strategic goals,” Limon said.

Village President John Rigas praised Limon’s approach to problem solving and management, calling him “highly professional.”

“He’s data driven in analyzing trends,” said Rigas, who also approves of Limon’s interdepartmental approach to dealing with crime.

“I had high expectations of Frank, and he still exceeded them,” said trustee Steve Hoke, who was instrumental in identifying Limon as a chief candidate and in negotiating to bring him to River Forest. “In his first year, not only did he take our far and away most challenged department and turn it around, he managed to do it while cutting the budget more aggressively than any other department.

“There’s a lot of talk out there about doing more with less,” Hoke said. “He’s proof it’s possible.”

Gutierrez called the accomplishments over the past year “a testament to the hard work of individuals on the department and the leadership Limon has provided.” Deputy Chief Greg Weiss echoed Gutierrez’s comments, and those of several rank and file officers who spoke off the record.

“He was dealt a rough hand, and he’s risen above it,” Weiss said. “It’s a challenge, and he’s taken on that challenge.” He added that there’s a difference between being a manager and being a leader.

“The definition of leadership is to influence others to do what you want them to do,” Weiss said. “He gets us to do things we’re not used to.”

Perhaps that’s because Limon is quick to praise the good work of subordinates.

“Personnel was the key to making that happen,” said Limon of the drop in crime and other successes in 2009. He said decisions such as promoting Weiss, placing Sgt. Marty Grill in charge of the detectives and putting Lt. Craig Rutz in charge of the three patrol shifts, among other steps, were key components of that success.

George Parry, who has been observing and working with police on numerous issues over the years, said Limon’s approach has paid dividends for him. “(Weiss) is doing a very fine job, which frees Limon to deal with other important issues,” said Parry, who called those issues big-picture matters.

“You don’t do it alone,” Limon said. “I needed a type of leadership to make sure that whatever type of strategic plan we put in place to fight crime would be followed up on.”

Limon’s focus on cooperation extends beyond River Forest. In 2009, River Forest joined the regional task force WEDGE (West Suburban Directed Gang Enforcement) and helped create FOREcast, a four-department intelligence-gathering co-op with Oak Park, Forest Park and Elmwood Park.

“He’s been at the forefront of realizing regional cooperation between police departments,” Gutierrez said.

Mentoring key to continued success

Former village president Frank Paris made no secret of his desire to be able to hire the next chief of police from within the department’s ranks, a goal unrealized over the last decade. Ironically, one of Paris’s last major decisions in office appears likely to bear fruit in that regard.

Limon said a big reason he made the decision to come to River Forest was Paris. “When Frank Paris interviewed me for the job, that was one of the things he asked me to do, to prepare someone to sit in my chair when I moved on,” Limon said. “I told him I believed mentoring should go on from the highest levels of the police department to the officers on the street.

“Everybody should be mentored to move up,” Limon said. “Some of my mentors who brought me up through the (Chicago) department made me who I am today.”

Hoke said Limon’s impact will likely be felt long after he’s gone. “If things work as planned, we will be able to hire in-house, because these guys will be so well trained,” Hoke said.

Weiss said he and other officers welcome what he calls a wealth of information and mentoring.

“His big theme is accountability,” Weiss said. “He gives supervisors tasks and holds them accountable to explain what they’re doing.”

First, though, Limon gives them the tools to do so. Sharing experiences and insights, he said, is “one of the most valuable assets you have as a leader.”

“That was my goal, always in Chicago, to sit down and explain to (subordinates) why you make certain decisions, and to expose them to the experiences (I) have,” he said. Often that means leading by example. “I never ask an officer to do anything I wouldn’t do,” Limon said.

“I’m proud to work under him,” said Weiss. “He’s taken the department in the right direction.”

Past Villagers of the Year

Wednesday Journal has named a Villager of the Year in River Forest since 2005. Here are the people we’ve previously recognized:

2005 Frank Paris, River Forest village president

2006 Charles “Chuck” Biondo

, River Forest village administrator

2007 Steve Hoke

, River Forest village trustee

2008 Frank Paris

, River Forest village president, and Steve Hoke, River Forest village trustee

A history of accomplishment

Today’s recognition in not the first major honor Limon received in 2009. In July, his old employer, the Chicago police department, recognized his innovation and leadership in responding to the 2006 public health crisis caused by the heart-stopping synthetic opiate Fentanyl. The drug, used by street gangs to cut heroin, killed over 300 people in Cook County in a six month period and sent another 2,000 to the hospital.

Limon worked closely with state and federal agencies on drug interdiction and criminal prosecutions, and oversaw the creation and implementation of the Chicago Heroin Overdose Task Force. His approach is now nationally recognized as a “template” for how to approach such emergency situations.

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