Oxford Police Lt. Lara Fening loves to see life in its rawest form.
That’s how she describes being the first on the scene in response to an Oxford Police Department call.
“You get to see the good, the bad, the ugly,” she said. “You see it all.”
“But, you get to see it first,” she added with a grin and a laugh.
When she started as a police officer, Fening used to respond to a call with a pre-developed plan. But, these plans were often not the necessary responses. She described developing the correct response plans to these calls as taking a thousand-piece puzzle that has been mixed in a bowl, and putting it back together.
Today, Fening is the department’s public information officer, which means she often is the voice of the department in news stories. She also is the author of most of the department’s social media postings and creator of the popular “Weekend Update” postings on Facebook, which presents as wry account of recent police activities.
Through her 24-year-career with Oxford Police Department, she has gained a skill set that allows her to figure things out on the fly.
This ability was on display in 2018, when Fening was driving from Columbus to Oxford after a work-related training and noticed a tractor trailer on the side of the road with a crushed SUV that appeared to have rear-ended it. Pulling over, hopping out of her car, and inspecting the driver of the SUV, Fening noticed that the SUV was lightly smoking. She extinguished the fire with equipment from her own car and assessed the injuries of the driver.
Police Chief John Jones remembers Fening playing off the crash like it was a small incident when she returned to work that day. Then he received a call from the local fire chief a few weeks later, who had responded to the crash. The fire chief said Fening’s actions were the reason the SUV driver survived the crash. For her actions she was awarded the Meritorious Service Award by OPD.
Fening’s willingness to stop and contribute, no matter the time, is well-known throughout the department. “She does things not because it’s her job,” said Jones. “But, because she actually has a passion for this community.”
The community impact is what changed Fening’s mind about local law enforcement in the first place. Since she was a freshman in high school, Fening said she had her eyes set on law enforcement -- just of a different kind. She planned to be a part of federal law enforcement and to learn several languages. By the end of her senior year, however, she had met several members of the local Middletown Police Department and homed in on their impact.
“That is exactly what I want to do,” Fening jabs her finger in the air as she remembers thinking about the service of these local officers.
The last of 12 children, Fening wasn’t sure where to go to school before becoming a police officer. She completed her freshman year at Miami University’s Middletown campus before transferring to the Oxford campus to earn a sociology degree with a concentration in criminology.
During her senior year, Fening interned with the Butler County’s Sheriff Office before accepting a job as an officer with the Miami University Police Department. Three years later, she faced a choice -- to take a better-paying job in Dayton or stay in Oxford and transition to Oxford Police Department.
The centralized “Uptown” area of Oxford appealed to Fening, who was promoted to lieutenant four years ago, now looks back and realizes how different her night shifts would have been elsewhere.
Jones started as a part-time dispatcher with OPD in 1998 and remembers Fening’s guidance and willingness to teach from the beginning.
“She never discounted me because I was a rookie,” he smiled.
From one of Jones’ first calls when he tackled a student with a fake prescription at CVS that was evading arrest by Fening, to developing the Weekend Update, Jones and Fening still bounce ideas off each other.
“If I’m torn in my heart on which way to do something (that would affect employees) then she is the first person I would go to for guidance on that,” said Jones.
Amy Gabbard, office manager of the police department who has worked at OPD since 1999, agrees that Fening is a positive impact on the force
“She’s an out-of-the-box kind of thinker,” she added. “Which makes her a very good problem solver.”
This type of thinking helps Fening in her role as public information officer, which she took on when she was promoted to lieutenant. Her primary duties now include supervising the department’s civilian staff, support services such as parking enforcement and records, as well as handling public affairs. In addition, she sits on the Oxford Coalition for a Healthy Community.
Jones thinks Fening is a perfect fit. “She’s a natural at it,” he said. “She’s just so approachable.”
Fening is also responsible for liaising with social service agencies as well as overseeing department personnel recruitment and animal control.
“I think that may be one of her passions,” Jones joked. “Like, beagles.”
“Weekend Updates” is posted on Facebook every Monday morning, in part to showcase the variety of things the OPD force does.
“It’s opening the windows to say look right in here,” explained Fening.
For Fening, it’s an element of transparency that is never fabricated or exaggerated. On Monday mornings, she first sorts through all of the weekend reports, taking notes and verifying ones that stick out to her. Next, she finds all of the relevant data and records on these cases so that she can answer follow-up questions from the media.
“Sometimes it’s boring,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s off the hook.”
After combining the cases -- and usually adding a few jokes -- Fening sends the Weekend Update through two editors, Gabbard and Jones. Gabbard focuses on grammatical and spelling mistakes, while Jones looks for potential issues or backlash from the information included.
Fening has long had the idea for something similar to the Weekend Update, but never expected it to grow to the recognition that it has. Neither did Jones, who said he can’t go to any community meeting without being stopped and complimented on the Department’s social media, particularly the Weekend Update.
Since publication of the update began, officers have noticed that Oxford residents approach them more, often using the update as a conversation starter.
That was the goal for Fening. “If the public trusts you,” she said. “If they feel like they have a relationship with you--even if it’s online--it trickles down.”
The common thread connecting Oxford residents is often these events -- and where they take place -- The uptown parks, High Street, the mile square . . .several of the reasons Fening chose to stay in Oxford in the first place.
“There’s a lot of energy here,” she gestured out her office window, with a view of the entrance of Brick Street Bar and Grill.
“A lot of. . .variety,” she carefully added.