This week, The World-Herald is publishing profiles on the four finalists for Omaha police chief.
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Supporters say the incident at the San Joaquin County Fairgrounds showcased Blair Ulring at his finest. Principled. Ethical. Unswayed by politics.
Opponents choose a different set of words. Dictatorial. Vindictive. Confrontational.
On that day in the fall of 2010, members of a Stockton, Calif., police union were setting up beer kegs to raise funds for an impoverished school they had adopted. Then two lieutenants showed up with a note from Police Chief Ulring.
Now one of four finalists to become Omaha's next chief, Ulring was taking issue with officers being involved in liquor sales.
“I am giving you a direct order not to participate directly or indirectly in the selling/bartending of alcohol,” the order said, according to news reports.
To Ulring, it was improper. Officers shouldn't sell alcohol when there's a chance they'll have to arrest drinkers on their way home, he said.
“To me, it was just common sense,” Ulring said in an interview with The World-Herald. “Unfortunately, the union president and I disagreed.”
The chief said that was the only time he had butted heads with the union up until then. But to the union, it was the final straw in what members say had long been a combative relationship.
The union held a no-confidence vote on the chief shortly after, then unsuccessfully sued Ulring for the action.
After Ulring left the department in February, he was a finalist for police chief of Flagstaff, Ariz. Members of the Stockton police union flooded Flagstaff officials with letters skewering Ulring's time as chief.
He didn't get the job.
Ulring, 52, was an Air Force kid who grew up all over the world. But he has lived his entire adult life in Stockton. About 20 miles south of Sacramento, the inland port city isn't as big as Omaha, with just fewer than 300,000 residents to Omaha's 415,000.
It's also rougher than Omaha, with the 10th-highest violent crime rate in the country. There have been 35 homicides so far this year, compared with 19 in Omaha so far this year.
Ulring was a 20-something manager of a Stockton Chuck E. Cheese when he applied for the police force, launching a 28-year career with the department.
He was named officer of the year in 1988 and was a key member of the team that shifted the department from a beat structure to district policing. As a SWAT sergeant in the mid-1990s, he developed curfew and truancy programs that remain in place today.
He graduated from the FBI National Academy in 2000. In 2003, as a lieutenant overseeing vice, narcotics and gangs, Ulring was selected for the FBI's executive development program.
He was named chief in August 2008. It wasn't a good time to be a department head in Stockton. The city was going broke. A program granting free health care for all city retirees had ballooned into a $417 million liability.
In June, Stockton became the nation's largest city to file for bankruptcy.
The city cut 121 positions, including laying off 55 officers, despite Ulring's repeated protests.
“When the budget gets tight, it forces you to look way outside the box,” he said.
He demoted officers to fill positions previously held by civilians. He axed entire specialty units, including narcotics, gangs and auto theft, instead embedding officers with the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and other groups that could focus on the same problems.
Ulring said he looks forward to running a department that doesn't face such serious difficulties. He knows all about Omaha's pension problems but said he's not sure what role the police chief would have in fixing the problem.
But if the department needs cost-cutting, he said, he has plenty of experience.
“That's something I have a lot of expertise in. Consolidating costs, collaborating with others, finding cheaper ways of doing something, different funding mechanisms,” he said.
If Omaha were in a situation where the department needed to be dismantled, he said, he wouldn't have applied.
“You get some department heads that give up, make cuts and stop doing certain things,” Stockton City Manager Bob Deis said. “Good department heads are those that accept the challenge, morph into something that can live within their means. That's Blair Ulring.”
Ulring tried to react quickly to changing crime patterns, Deis said. He'd look at data from throughout the week and, if a new trend emerged, would call in his command staff on the weekend to come up with a plan of attack.
The rocky relationship with the police union never improved. Bill Hutto, vice president of the union, recalled Ulring as a spiteful chief who didn't back up his officers.
With a high crime rate, officer-involved shootings and fights with suspects aren't uncommon, Hutto said. After each incident, officers would find themselves in the public's cross hairs. And not once, he said, did Ulring come to their defense.
Hutto said he believes Ulring was selected as chief to help break the union. Ulring removed union members from specialty positions and put them back on the streets, he said, and members who disagreed during contract negotiations were put on administrative leave.
“We're in bankruptcy, we've had our pay cut, and our morale is still 100 percent better than when he was here,” Hutto said.
Ulring denied Hutto's claims. He said he visited every officer who was involved in a shooting. He said he didn't punitively remove people from specialty positions or take action against those who spoke out during contract negotiations.
Ulring said the Stockton department had four unions. Only one union has been publicly complaining about his tenure, and even then it's only a small number of members, he said.
John Wells, president of the Omaha police union, has been in contact with members of the Stockton union. Wells said he is concerned that he didn't hear a single good thing about Ulring, although the Omaha union has not formally endorsed any candidate.
“It's a smear campaign,” Ulring said. “It's one thing to be involved in the normal background process. But to go out of your way, to send letters and contact union members, to try to turn the public against me before the process even starts?”
Ulring's retirement from Stockton was unusual.
At the same time benefits were being cut throughout the department, the city manager proposed giving the chief a raise. The goal was to offset cuts to his retirement, Ulring said, which was the only way his estimated $187,000 pension would remain at that level. The City Council rejected the plan, and the next day Ulring quit.
“They gave me a sandwich I couldn't swallow. If you were over 50 in the Stockton Police Department, there was no way you could stay,” he said. “It was a family consideration, and I felt like I had no alternative.”
The day after he retired, he became interim police chief, earning a salary in addition to his pension.
While he has no specific ties to Omaha, he does have family in Iowa. More than anything, he said, he wants a chance to do the work he's done his whole career.
He's also a finalist for the chief's job in Spokane, Wash.
“I'm a young man. I feel like I have a tremendous number of years left to work,” he said.
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