By Kevin Kelley
Erich Upperman was intent on joining the Fairview Park Police Department in 1984, even to the point of taking the scheduled police officer’s exam on his wedding day. Fortunately for him, the wedding date was switched for other reasons. But Upperman said he was prepared to take the exam in his wedding tuxedo.
Upperman, who joined the force that September at age 21, will become its next police chief in mid-October. The lieutenant scored highest on the civil service chief’s test, which was also taken by Lt. Samuel Zummo and Lt. William Harrison.
Upperman will succeed Patrick Nealon, who is retiring after 36 years with the department, the past 23 as chief.
The 1980 graduate of North Olmsted High School credits marital arts, specifically taekwondo, for his law enforcement career. Upperman began studying the discipline at age 15. Several years later, a fellow taekwondo student who was a police officer in Brunswick asked Upperman to teach self-defense courses to that city’s officers, including its SWAT team. Interaction with the officers got him interested in a career as a police officer, he said.
Earning a second-degree black belt in the discipline proved to be helpful while catching bad guys, he said. He earned a reputation among some trouble-making youth as “Ironman,” he said, due to his physical fitness.
“Nobody ever got away,” he said of juveniles who tried to outrun him.
But his study of taekwondo also gave Upperman, who had been shy in his younger years, the confidence he needed to succeed in law enforcement, he said.
Upperman said he also utilizes the respect inherent in taekwondo in his approach to criminal perpetrators, many of whom are emotional or tearful following their arrest. He counsels them that although they may have made a mistake, they can begin to take constructive actions in their lives, he explained.
When he first joined the force, Upperman had a gung-ho attitude toward the job, he recalled, volunteering for overtime and extra shifts. Now, he said, he enjoys his time off. But he still finds police work, such as helping residents solve problems, rewarding.
“Catching the bad guys is very satisfying,” he told West Life.
Since 2006, Upperman has been in charge of the department’s two dozen auxiliary police officers, whose service is a combination of volunteer and paid work. He’s worked with other Westshore communities on regionalizing training for auxiliary officers, and the feedback has been good, he said.
Mayor Eileen Patton recently told Upperman how often residents tell her the city’s sense of safety is one of the best attributes of Fairview Park.
“I don’t want to have that change,” Upperman said.
“I believe in pro-activity,” he explained. “I don’t believe we should just be waiting for the next call to come in.”
For example, studies have demonstrated that successful community policing involves focusing on the likely locations of crime and preventing potential problems rather than simply having officers conduct random patrols, Upperman said.
The police department employs a very talented group of officers who are skilled in all aspects of police work, he said.
The father of one son and two daughters with his wife, Diane, Upperman credited Nealon with being his mentor since he joined the department.
“I learned a lot of stuff from him,” Upperman said of the current chief. “I’m just hoping I can do as good a job as he did.”