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Police Chief Announces Retirement - Rockford Top Cop Jeff Nielsen Catches Many Off Guard with News

April 21, 2002

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Police Chief Announces Retirement - Rockford Top Cop Jeff Nielsen Catches Many Off Guard with News

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by Mark Bonne, Rockford Register Star

ROCKFORD, ILL. - In an Wednesday announcement that surprised many, Jeff Nielsen, a Rockford cop for 33 years and police chief since 1997, said he'll retire as soon as a replacement can be found.

Nielsen, 57, said during a news conference at the Public Safety Building that he wants to escape the rigors of the job and has no plans except to kick back and take life easy.

Word of his exit comes weeks after Nielsen inked a three-year labor deal with the police union and while he continues to enjoy a marked drop in crime from before he assumed command. The search for a successor is expected to take several months and likely draw as contenders a number of the department's high-ranking brass - including Deputy Chief Dominic Iasparro, one of three finalists for the position five years ago.

With Mayor Doug Scott at his side, Nielsen said his decision had nothing to do with Scott's election a year ago or departures of five agency heads since then, including directors of the MetroCentre, airport and public library.

"Chief is a tough job," Nielsen told a crowd of dignitaries and uniformed and plainclothes officers.

"It certainly takes a toll on you, and I think it's time. It's just that simple. "There's no 'issue.' There's no corruption. There's no job waiting. There's no crisis. There's no bad boss. There's no mayor cleaning house."

Scott said he considers Nielsen a "great friend" and praised his leadership.

"He's a very valued member of the team," Scott said. "He has a real passion, not just for the police department, but the city as a whole. He's leaving on top. He's leaving on his own terms."

Nielsen embraced Scott and lingered on the verge of tears when relating that he has ended his written performance evaluation each year by stating it's been an "honor and privilege" to serve as chief.

A Chicago native who didn't want to wear a badge in his hometown because of the force's reputation for graft, Nielsen said he's bowing out to spend more time with his wife and three grown children and to relieve the stress of running a 300-officer, $30 million-a-year force.

"You're dealing with a tremendous amount of personnel issues, most of which a lot of you in this room will never know," he said. "When you're talking to an officer and you have to say something like: 'I never want to see you in this uniform again' ... those things eat me up; they eat me up."

Nielsen also confided that reports of officers taking a vote of no confidence at various points during labor negotiations "devastated me."

As chief, Nielsen hasn't had to contend with the record murder rates and widespread gang violence that gripped Rockford during the early 1990s. But in the past year, Nielsen faced a spate of high-profile crimes, including the fatal shooting by officers of an armed shoplifter at a Wal-Mart in May. He called the August slaying of Detective Kevin Rice "the epitome of tragedy and the worst thing I've ever dealt with" on a professional level.

The announcement drew Charles Box, who was mayor when Nielsen became chief, and Delbert Peterson, the chief who swore in Nielsen as a rookie in 1968. Winnebago County State's Attorney Paul Logli, Sheriff Dick Meyers and Coroner Sue Fiduccia were among other notables on hand.

"I found out at 8:20 this morning," Jeff Morris, assistant deputy chief for operations, said of Nielsen's announcement.

"I thought for sure he was here for at least four more years - I think all of us did."

Morris, who applied for the top spot in 1997, said he probably would submit his name again. Iasparro had no comment on the question.

The news raised questions about whether other city heads would leave. Fire Chief Bill Robertson, a 30-year veteran in charge for the past 10 years, said he's "not anticipating retirement in the near future" and knows of "no one (else) who's thinking of leaving."

Profile: Jeff Nielsen
Age: 57
Position: Rockford chief of police
Years on force: 33

Family: Martha, wife of 31 years; three children, Michael, 28, Patrick, 26, and Katie, 24.
Hometown: Chicago

Education: Harper High School in Chicago, 1962; Wilson Junior College, associate of arts, 1964; U.S. Army sergeant, stationed in Germany, 1965-67; Northwestern School of Police Staff and Command, 1984.

Community involvement: Serves on the boards of the Children and Our Courts Foundation and the Janet Wattles Mental Health Center; active in several police organizations.

Climbing the Blue Ladder

Dec. 9, 1968: Hired as 23-year-old patrolman and later a report-and-review officer.

April 13, 1978: Sergeant, responsible for 40 officers.

Sept. 3, 1985: Promoted to lieutenant, takes over training and personnel, and develops a program for recruiting officers.

1985: Narrowly loses to fellow officer William Fitzpatrick in becoming the department's chief.

July 1, 1988: Promoted to captain in administration.

Nov. 14, 1990: Promoted to deputy chief of administration, responsible for the department's budget, purchasing and records.

July 14, 1997: Becomes chief of police. Rockford

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