It turns out North Riverside Mayor Joseph Mengoni didn’t have to dig too deep to find the village’s new police chief. On July 26, he named Christian Ehrenberg – who has been serving as interim chief since May – to the top job on a permanent basis.
Ehrenberg replaced Carlos Garcia, who was appointed chief in May 2019 and who announced before Mengoni’s election earlier this year that he would be retiring at the end of the summer. Garcia’s tenure ended effectively in May, however, when he went on extended medical leave and Ehrenberg was appointed as interim.
“He has the education, he has the training, the skills that he can assist [the department’s officers] in developing,” Mengoni said.
Mengoni said it was clear to him from the start that he would seek Garcia’s replacement from among the department’s ranks. Between the time he was elected in April and assumed the mayor’s chair in May, Mengoni said he received scores of messages advising him to “listen to the police department.”
Not knowing exactly what those messages were referring to, Mengoni said he decided to meet with all of the department’s sergeants and get feedback from them.
“They said we have a lot of young, new, talented people in the department,” said Mengoni. “They have training and skills sets in different areas that they really want to put to use. And their hopes for a replacement for Carlos would be somebody that embraces that and really lets them grow as a department.”
Mengoni said providing officers with more specialized training was something they wanted and felt the village and police leadership were not providing, which lowered morale.
“They said they felt they were being stifled, that they weren’t being heard,” Mengoni said. “They felt they were in a rut and that the department wasn’t progressing into the future.”
In an interview with the Landmark, Ehrenberg emphasized the importance of training and said he will implement core training standards for all officers. For example, all officers will be trained as juvenile officers, evidence technicians and DUI officers.
And for the first time, all officers will undergo field medical training, since police are often the first emergency personnel to respond to scenes where urgent, immediate medical care is essential.
From there, officers can bolster their skills with special training, such as becoming a drone operator, doing truck weight enforcement and other skills.
“This is all in an effort to prepare patrol officers to become corporals, and for corporals to take the sergeant’s exam and for sergeants to become administrators,” Ehrenberg said. “It’s a totally different way of envisioning our department and preparing everyone for the next level of achievement.”
There may be no better time to refocus the police department’s training regimen, because in recent years its ranks have gotten much more junior.
North Riverside presently employs 22 police officers, which include two command staffers, six sergeants and 14 patrol officers. Of those patrol officers, 12 have nine or fewer years of service and six have less than five.
Just three police officers – Ehrenberg, Commander David Kopka and Office Raul Pelayo – have 20 or more years of service.
Both Ehrenberg and Kopka are the most senior officers, each with 25 years of service, meaning they have five more years before they can draw a full pension, something attractive to Mengoni.
“I talked to Christian about that, and I said my concern is I don’t want you to just use this as an opportunity to say you retired as a chief,” Mengoni said. “I want somebody who’s going to be in there, committed to bringing upon the change that we want.”
North Riverside has had four chiefs since 2013, the longest serving of them being Lane Niemann, who was chief from May 2013 until November 2017.
The last two chiefs, Deborah Garcia and Carlos Garcia – who are married to one another – served as chief for 17 months and two years, respectively, before retiring.
Ehrenberg didn’t say exactly when he had eyes on retirement, but he said that when he does decide to leave, the department’s emphasis on training should ensure that whoever is mayor at that time will have someone ready inside the department’s ranks.
“By the time I leave, I want to give the mayor so many qualified people, it’s going to be hard for him to decide,” Ehrenberg said.
Ehrenberg will be sworn in as police chief at the village board’s meeting on Aug. 9. He’ll be joined on that night by other officers whose promotions Mengoni announced at a special meeting of the board on July 26.
Kopka, who has held the rank of commander since 2019, was named the department’s deputy police chief, while Sgt. Christopher Boenzi was elevated to commander.
The village’s 2021-22 appropriations ordinance, also passed by trustees on July 26, includes money to hire two new police officers.