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SHOWCASE: Slideshow of Alex Hayes. * * * * *
For the third time in four years, Omaha could have to find a new police chief.
Omaha Police Chief Alex Hayes appears to be on the verge of retirement. A person familiar with the decision, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Hayes has filled out the requisite paperwork that signals his intent to retire.
Hayes recently turned 48 and has served in the department for 25 years. He's been chief for two years and would be eligible to retire with a six-figure annual pension and health benefits.
Lt. Darci Tierney, a Police Department spokeswoman, said Hayes was out of town this week and unavailable for comment. He did not return phone calls and messages left by The World-Herald.
Mayor Jim Suttle has received no formal communication from Hayes regarding any retirement plans, a Suttle spokeswoman said.
Still, the chief was praised inside City Hall Tuesday. Word of Hayes' apparent plans to leave the department stunned much of city government.
It's unclear what effect Hayes' departure could have on a police headquarters that's recently seen little continuity inside the chief's sixth-floor office.
Former Chief Thomas Warren retired in January 2008, after roughly four years in the top job. He was replaced by Chief Eric Buske, who left to serve as a small-town Texas police chief in 2009. By December of that year, Hayes was tabbed as Buske's successor.
Hayes started in the department on Nov. 17, 1986, and was promoted to captain and commander of the city's northeast precinct in January 2008. He served there briefly, and applied to serve as chief after Warren retired, before he was promoted to deputy police chief and commander of the department's Criminal Investigations Bureau in November 2008.
By then, Hayes had already worked in some of the department's most high-profile positions, including stints in the city's homicide, gang, narcotics, crime analysis/intelligence and child victim/sex assault units.
He is the city's 31st police chief, and only the second African-American to serve in the position. Suttle has called Hayes "one of the best appointments I made."
City Councilman Garry Gernandt, a retired police officer, said he wasn't aware that Hayes was planning to retire. "I'm shocked," he said.
"He's been a stellar chief," Gernandt said, noting that Hayes has been especially notable for his focus on community policing.
Tierney said she could not confirm or comment on Hayes' plans.
"But I would hate to see him leave," she said. "I think he's done a lot of great things for the community. If he's retiring, I hope he stays involved here."
Hayes has faced challenges during his brief tenure.
He has dealt with allegations of evidence-planting by gang unit officers, as well as violent street crime and a number of officer-involved shootings.
Budget constraints and aging equipment have prompted frequent complaints from officers. A stream of retirements has thinned the department's corps of experienced officers and investigators.
Last year, the department faced questions about service weapon safety after the teenage son of a police detective used his father's handgun to wound a school principal and kill an assistant principal and himself.
Amid an uproar over allegations of police brutality in September, Hayes also moved to fire two officers involved in the videotaped struggle with and arrest of an Omaha man.
Hayes also instituted 40 hours of in-service training for all Omaha officers under the rank of captain in 2010. Officers were also set to receive 32 hours of training in 2011.
He's worked to control the department's finances and, while he was interim chief, was able to save enough funds to keep the Police Department's helicopter in the air despite calls to save money by grounding it.
Salaries for Hayes and his deputy chiefs recently caused a dust-up with the City Council.
In August, the City Council agreed to raise Hayes' annual salary to about $146,000 after three years without a pay increase.
The salary was about $20,000 less than Suttle's original proposal, which would have bumped Hayes' pay to $165,670.
Based on his current salary, Hayes could receive an annual pension of roughly $109,500, plus city employee health care after retirement.
Councilman Chris Jerram said Hayes is one of the city's highest paid employees, so his pension will necessarily be larger than most. If Hayes decides to stay, Jerram said, his pension would only increase over time.
"He's earned it," Jerram said. "He's done a good job."
Jerram called Hayes a great public servant and said the chief made big strides to build relationships with the north Omaha community and operate a department facing a trying financial situation.
"It's a sad day for the community, a sad day for Omaha," said Councilman Ben Gray. "I consider him one of the best chiefs in the country. He's made community policing more than just a slogan. It's something he lives by, something his force lives by."
Former Chief Warren said he was not aware of Hayes' retirement plans.
"I have a lot of respect and admiration for Chief Hayes," said Warren, who is now president of the Urban League of Nebraska. "He's exemplified professionalism."
Warren said the job is "extremely challenging and very demanding."
"It can be a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, 365-day assignment, but it's one you embrace. . (Hayes) embraced the challenge," he said.
World-Herald staff writers Jeffrey Robb, Sam Womack and Matt Wynn contributed to this report.
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