MARCO ISLAND — As he glances at the cheerful bouquet sitting on the conference table of his office, Thom Carr seems a little surprise someone would send him flowers to congratulate him on his retirement. After all, he says, he’s just leaving office, not leaving town. With just days remaining as Marco Island’s chief of police, Carr is reflecting on the achievements and challenges he’s faced during his 12 years with the department, a department he helped start from scratch.
Since announcing his retirement earlier this month, Carr has been organizing his office, going thorough files and tying up loose ends to ensure a smooth transition when former Collier County Sheriff Don Hunter is sworn in on Aug. 8. He admits that he’s “letting the realization sit in” that he’ll soon turns over the reins.
As one of the first officers hired in 1999, Carr has guided the department through its infancy, hired staff and purchased equipment for the agency, which began patrolling at midnight Jan. 1, 2000. During those years, Carr has risen up the ranks to become the island’s top lawman.
Although Carr had anticipated working through another year, celebrating his birthday last month made him realize a life change was in order.
“When I finally did have my 65th birthday in June, I said, ‘Naw, this is enough,’ ” he says. “It wasn’t going to be any different in a year.”
Since taking the helm as chief in 2008, Carr maintains that his goals as chief were modest.
“I didn’t change much, except that I had full authority,” he says.
First and foremost, Carr wanted to retain well-trained officers and hire the best people possible. Despite city budget tightening over the last few years, which has included officer layoffs, Carr believes he’s been successful.
“We’ve developed and maintained an excellent force. We’ve hired tremendously talented people with years and years of police experience. They make policing on this island easy because they know what they’re doing and they know how to do it.”
Carr counts Marco’s low crime rates one of his major accomplishments. Crime has declined each year, although the city is currently experiencing an uptick because of auto break-ins.
“A lot of people think that nothing happens on the island, but that’s because we take care of it and we don’t go around blowing our horns all the time.”
As the face of the agency, Carr is acutely aware of the naysayers – residents who criticize him in online blogs, or who question the need for a police department on such a small island. He acknowledges that for some, the department’s $4 million dollar budget to patrol 24 square miles seems excessive.
“Does a police department cost money? Sure it does. It’s up to the citizens to decide if they want a police department. But I’d bet my last paycheck that if there was another referendum that some people are screaming for (even more resident would support the department),”
About the only regret Carr has is that his department hasn’t yet undergone the extensive – and expensive process of being nationally accredited.
When it comes to who Carr thought would succeed him as police chief, his money was on his current second in command, Capt. Dave Baer. Carr says he even recommended Baer to city manager, Jim Riviere.
“Don Hunter was certainly a surprise,” Carr says, adding that he supports the choice.
“Coming in here as chief, (Hunter) knows the area; he’s certainly familiar with the politics. He understands what Marco Island is. He’s going to get a quick education, and people know him and respect him.”
Carr believes those qualities will give Hunter an edge, the ability to hit the ground running instead of having to get up-to-speed like an outside candidate would.
Before being named as chief, Carr served in an interim capacity while the island conducted a costly nationwide search. He believes there was no need to look outside the area.
Although many in the community have questioned the quick hiring of Hunter, Carr disputes it was a back room deal.
“Did the city manager do anything wrong? Not as far as I’m concerned. He saw local talent that was available and he went after it.
“The politics of Marco Island is that everyone wants to be involved. It doesn’t always work that way.”
It’s the politics that Carr bluntly admits he will not miss at all.
Always composed, you get the sense that Carr is feeling a little nostalgic for what he’s about to leave behind. More than a half-dozen of the original Marco officers are still on the force, including ones Carr recruited from the Indianapolis Police Department, where he worked for 25 years before arriving on Marco.
“It’s going to be difficult,” he admits of his last day, scheduled for July 31.
“The 12 years I’ve been here have been, even with some of the negatives, extremely enjoyable. I’ve met some tremendous, smart, hard working people. Not just in the police department, but city staff. People on this island do not appreciate what staff and officers go through with the small number they have and what little support they have.
Carr has agreed to be available during Hunter’s transition, but won’t say whether or not he’s being paid.
As for the future, no jobs are looming and Carr is still pondering his next move. He jokes that residents might see him wearing a bright orange Home Dept apron.
“Something that would be fun where I’m not in charge of anyone but myself,” Carr says of his next position. “I can work for someone else and they can tell me what to do.”
After a dozen years of service, Carr just wants to be remembered as a leader who helped a steer a new organization in the right direction.
“I think we’ve built a good department with tremendously talented people. They will carry on and keep this department running and they’ll serve Don well.”