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Wednesday, June 3,2009

ALLEY'S WAY

A profile of Lansing's police chief as he reaches a juncture in his career

by Angela Vasquez-Giroux

Lansing Police Chief Mark Alley, who has commanded the city's police force for nearly nine years, may be the ruddiest police chief in the Midwest. He has large rosy cheeks that balloon out from the corners of his mouth whenever he smiles, which is often. He came to Lansing 23 years ago after graduating from Ferris State University and rose quickly through the ranks, taking over the department after former chief Robert Johnson left for a job in Mississippi.

Alley is large in both height and linebacker-like girth and is often seen in public wearing his formal dress uniform, which includes various pins and an a leather strap across the chest. Even at rest, his mouth is curved in a smile, and he has a thunderous laugh that might be accompanied by a friendly slap on the back, if you're standing close enough.

On May 12, Alley was at a Citizen Police Academy graduation in the basement of the South Precinct, which he formerly commanded. Standing in a line of graduates, he joked and talked as he waited patiently for a chance to get at a table of tuna salad sandwiches, fruit, chips and cookies. Shortly after, he stood at the front of the room and handed out diplomas, posing for a picture with each graduate.


"Suck it in!" he jovially told a graduate as they squeezed together for a picture; the room burst into laughter.

Alley has been credited with improving police relations with the gay community, promoting community policing, starting a successful scholarship program with Lansing Community College and implementing a racial profiling tracking system. He presided over the investigation and apprehension of a serial killer, then marched lockstep with Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero on the subsequent and much debated installation of surveillance cameras in problem areas around the city. Now, after a long career in Lansing, he has applied to be U.S. marshal for the Western District of Michigan. Add to that his own assessment that he didn’t see himself staying a police officer for more than two more years, when he reaches the 25-year mark.


So who is this man who has controlled law enforcement in this city for nearly a decade?



Intensity


During the summer of 2007, a serial killer stalked Lansing. The killer was targeting women. By summer’s end, five were dead.


Alley’s department, along with the state and Michigan State University police, was charged with stopping the killer. He said that the stress was intense.


Alley identified with Roy Scheider’s police chief character from the first “Jaws” movie. Scheider’s character took responsibility for the death of a boy after failing to convince the mayor to close the town’s beaches. The admission of blame, he said, informs his philosophy.

“When it comes right down to it, good, bad or indifferent, it’s my responsibility,” he said.


In August 2007, the combined police forces arrested Matthew Macon, who last May was found guilty of murdering Karen Delgado-Yates and Sandra Eichorn and assaulting Linda Chapel Jackson, and is suspected in the deaths of others that summer.

But the Macon killings begat controversy: surveillance cameras.


In the months following the killings, Bernero unveiled a plan — inspired by Alley — to install cameras in various parts of the city to record crimes. Alley stepped up to sell the cameras, pointing out that they were not a replacement for officers but a crime-fighting tool. But some critics have called the cameras a waste of money and counter to the model of community policing that Alley has used in Lansing.

“I thought it was a waste of money, and I still think it’s a waste of money,” said Bonnie Bucqueroux, a former associate director at the National Center for Community Policing at MSU and co-author of two books on community policing.

So did City Council, which rejected funding the cameras, which the administration then paid for with donations.


Bucqueroux says that surveillance cameras can be used to prosecute crime but not prevent it, unlike community policing.

Former Lansing Mayor David Hollister credits Alley with fully implementing the community policing model, which aims to prevent crime by engaging the community and addressing smaller conflicts before they expand into serious crime.

“I am a product of and believer in community policing," Alley says. "The vast majority of crimes are solved because people feel comfortable giving information.”

Don Christy, a community police officer until 1995, when he became a detective, said that community policing "may not be what it used to be," with officers having the time to get to know the people in their neighborhoods on a first-name basis. That’s due to a loss in federal funding.


Bucqueroux said that Lansing was once at the forefront of community policing. When the movement of putting officers into communities began to gain traction, Time magazine interviewed Lansing officials about the practice. That was in 1991. But now, the city has slipped, she said. It wouldn't be fair to blame Alley, she said, because Michigan's economic challenges have taken a toll on police departments. But what Bernero and Alley are calling community policing is not, she said. More intense community policing might have saved LCC Professor Carolyn Kronenberg, she said. Kronenberg was murdered in her campus office in January 2005.


"It's about engaging the community, which is about more than just having officers on bikes and walking. It's about providing them with the time to fully engage and problem solve in the neighborhoods," she said.


Federal grants used to pay for community police officers — though some do still patrol several city neighborhoods — but that revenue has dried up.


Even if experts feel that Alley’s 2009 version of community policing isn't pure, neighborhood groups seem to love it. Nearly every neighborhood organization representative who agreed to comment for this story had only good things to say.


“They take every concern with the same degree of seriousness and treat them all the same, from major crime to traffic problems,” Denise Kelley, head of the Association for the Bingham Community, which represents a small neighborhood on Lansing’s east side, said.


She said that the neighborhood watch works with police, reporting prostitution activity to the North precinct. The problems her neighborhood has had with prostitutes trolling Kalamazoo Street have lessened.

Nancy Mahlow, of the Eastside Neighborhood Organization, said the police have a great understanding of neighborhood issues. Jack Stauffer, speaking for the Eastside Neighbors, had Christy in the early 1990s as a community police officer. Like other neighborhoods groups, Stauffer said, his community officer, Andy Lindemann, attends neighborhood meetings regularly to hear the concerns of neighbors.

"We have a crime every now and then, but they keep the drug houses out," he said.


Alley says that the surveillance cameras were never intended to replace police and have led to a drop in violent crimes. According to an April 14 memo, homicide, sexual assault, robbery, car theft and arson decreased 9.6 per- Amelia DeVivo/City Pulse cent between May 2008 and March 2009 within 500 feet of cameras in the North Precinct versus the same period the prior year. And the same between October 2008 and March 2009 versus the same period the prior year in the South Precinct. Between 500 and 1000 feet, the decrease was less than 1 percent.

The police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, isn't sold on the cameras.


"We've always taken the position that cameras are supplemental to law enforcement. They're useful in investigations, but we feel that most of your resources should be used out on the streets," said Tom Krug, head of Capitol City Lodge No. 141. “I think there's a difference of opinion there. The chief is supportive of cameras, and we are supportive of more people on the ground.”

Given a choice between the $100,000 it costs in benefits and salary to add an officer for a year, and using that money for additional cameras, Alley is torn. One hundred thousand dollars could pay one officer for a 25-year commitment, but it could also buy four cameras that would last until they break.



Becoming police


Alley didn’t come to police work easily. When he was growing up in Saint Clair, north of Detroit, he didn’t know what he wanted to do for a living. He always thought that he wasn’t as smart or capable as his older brother and sister.


"I
started school young — I had just turned 5," he said. "I struggled. I
had this in my mind: I just wasn’t as smart. But I had a nice
personality, so I was told," he laughed.

Choosing a law
enforcement career came in an offhand way. During his freshman year at
Ferris State University hoping to earn a football scholarship, a coach
told him that he would have to choose a major.

“I had no
intention of becoming an officer,” Alley laughed, telling the story in
response to a question at the Citizen Police Academy graduation. He
said that he scanned the academic course catalog, passing by
anthropology, art and biology and made it to the "C" section and
decided to give criminal justice a shot. After taking just one
entry-level criminal justice course — his instructor was a former
Lansing Police Department officer — Alley was hooked.

But that
summer, working in a salt mine slinging 80-pound bags, he had time to
reflect on his disappointing freshman year, when he earned a D average.


He had an epiphany.


“If I don't get my act together," he
recalled, “this is going to be my future.”


Alley taught himself to
study and graduated with a much-improved average. He continued to apply
himself and landed an internship at the Flint Police Department, where
he participated in sting operations involving prostitutes.

"My
eyes were opened wide as saucers,” he said.


It was then that he
discovered that he wanted to police a city.


Alley joined the Lansing
Police Department in 1986, and by 1991, Alley made sergeant. By 1995 he
was a lieutenant at the newly opened South Precinct. By 1998,
he was captain of the South Precinct.


"My goal was to retire as a
sergeant," he said. He figured he'd have to work his tail off to do it,
but that was his goal.


“Every special assignment I ever got I got
because no one else ever wanted it," he said, but each prepared him
along the way for something: disaster management, administration and
training officers. Alley realized he was being groomed for something
bigger.

In Alley's personnel file, which is several inches
thick, many evaluations and letters assess him as an engaging community
leader. Even if Alley wasn't sure he could do it, his supervisors were.


In 1994, a supervisor noted that he “walks the way he talks” and
predicted that if Alley continued that kind of performance, "he will
continue to progress and be perhaps the best
and the brightest of the entire organization some day. You are truly
our future."


Even after that, he says he didn't believe it. "I thought
it was really kind, what they were saying. But I didn't believe it."


Another evaluation noted Alley's solicitation of input from
neighborhood watch organizations through a survey, a sort of academic
riff on the tenets of community policing.

In early 2000, after
then-Chief Robert Johnson left to take a position in Mississippi, Alley
applied for his boss's job. He didn't think he had a chance, and was
shocked to be selected by then-Mayor David Hollister over Acting Chief
Andy George and Deputy Chief Helen Perry- Buse. Were it not for
Johnson’s telling Alley he was one of the people the outgoing chief
would like to see step into his shoes, Alley might not have applied.


Johnson “was the first person who told me I wasn't too young," Alley recalled.

Alley
grew up the youngest of three in Saint Clair. His parents and
grandmother were teachers. His older siblings would grow up to be
teachers, too. His parents, especially his father, instilled in him to
be humble, and he credits his father with keeping him grounded and
making him well aware of his abilities and limits.

Soon after
Alley became chief, he established the Helping Other People Excel
scholarship program, which grants enrollees two years free at LCC if
they graduate high school. The program was born out of Alley’s conflict
during his time at the salt mine. He figured there were probably a lot
of kids out there who needed some direction.


Alley considers the HOPE
scholarship to be one of his best achievements. He wears the program’s
logo as a lapel pin and has it printed on his tie.


Hollister said he
was impressed with Alley’s skills within the community, which played a
role in his selecting him for chief. Alley says he was
downright shocked that he was chosen.


"He was really a breath of fresh
air — community oriented, came out of community policing," Hollister
said.


When Alley applied for the chief's job, he was an adjunct
professor at Michigan State
University's School of Criminal Justice. It was from that school in
1994 that he earned a master's degree in criminal justice, all while
working full time as a police officer.

“He taught and was open
to new ideas. He was well respected, and had great relations with
minority communities. He met and probably exceeded all my
expectations," Hollister said.


Within his first year on the job,
Hollister asked Alley to tackle the issue of racial profiling.

"It
said something like, 'Address the problem of racial profiling,'" Alley
said of a memo Hollister sent him. Unsure where to begin, Alley sat
down to lunch with his former MSU professor, David Carter, and they
drew out a plan on a napkin.

The plan on the napkin eventually
became the Management Analysis of Traffic Stops program, which has, for
the past eight years, collected and analyzed data from traffic stops to
determine whether Lansing police officers were disproportionately
stopping minority drivers. Since its inception, the reports have
consistently showed Lansing's officers are fair.


Alley has also won
laurels from the gay community.

Lesbian activist Cheryl VanDeKerkhove says the Lansing Police Department has listened to the needs of her community.Gay
pride parade and festivities have consistently gone off without a
hitch, she said, and the police responded quickly to antigay graffiti
in Old Town last year.


Michigan Equality Director Julie Nemecek agreed,
stressing that the police have done a great job making sure protesters
at gay pride festivities adhere to the law.


"I have nothing but
positive things to say about the police," she said.


Gay activist Todd
Heywood said that when Alley came to town, many gay men saw the police
as the enemy. But not so anymore. Even after a sting operation against
“cruising” gay men in Fenner nature Center last week, Heywood and
Lansing Association for Human Rights leader Penny Gardner described the
operation as an "isolated incident."



Are
you leaving us?


On May 5, the news broke that Alley had applied for a
job as U.S. marshal for the Western District of Michigan.

“In
late March of this year I applied for the position of United States
Marshal for the Western District of Michigan through United States
Senator Carl Levin’s office," said a statement he issued. "Before
applying, I spoke with Mayor Bernero and got his support for me
pursuing the opportunity. The United States Marshal is a presidential
appointment. In law enforcement, opportunities for this kind of
professional advancement don’t come along often.”


As
a condition of receiving an interview for this story, City Pulse agreed
not to ask about the job. For several weeks, Alley refused to be
interviewed at all — “out of respect” for the application process, as
Lansing Police spokesman Lt. Noel Garcia put it.


However, Alley did
address it at the Citizen Police Academy graduation.

"As some
of you saw, I applied for the U.S. marshal job," he told the graduates
and their guests. He expressed his sadness at the leaking of the
information to the media, given that it was so early on in the process.


"It came along a little earlier than I wanted it to," he said,
referring to the U.S. marshal opportunity — meaning he would prefer to
leave Lansing at the 25-year mark. But, still, applying for one
position doesn't mean he's looking to hitch his star to the next train
out of town.


"I'm not actively looking for other employment," he said.


U.S. marshals, which are presidential appointments, are responsible for
protecting federal witnesses, apprehending federal fugitives and
enforcing federal court orders. Essentially, Alley would serve as the
enforcement arm of the federal court.

But Alley is not
guaranteed the job. Sources said Alley was “blasted” by a vetting
committee about the leak to the media, taking Alley's press release as
presumptuous or arrogant. (Calls to the head of the committee, Gary
McInerney, a Grand Rapids-area lawyer, were not returned.) Alley has
recommendation letters from Bernero and Hollister, but Gov. Jennifer
Granholm has written a letter of support for state police Col. Peter
Munoz. The final recommendation will come from Levin, and
President Barack Obama will make the final decision.


It was reported
that the vetting committee had hoped to make a decision by May 30 but
nothing has been announced yet.


"It's just a great career opportunity
he's taken advantage of,” Hollister said.


Alley says he will forever be
committed to both Bernero and former Mayor Tony Benavides for keeping
him on when both took office. However, he said he's never felt pressure
to move on — not from Bernero, not from his officers or the police
union.

But, 23 years in, around the time he had planned to
“move on,” Alley says he doesn't know how much longer he'll be chief.
He said he hasn't been asked to commit to four more years if Bernero
wins another term.


One thing is for certain. After years of not knowing
what he wanted to be, Alley is finally, he says, comfortable in his
abilities. This is his dream job, he says, even if, as a youngster, he
never dreamed he'd be chief.

He knows he can't be the chief
forever, and that one day he'll either move on or step aside.


“I just
hope it's on my terms, and no one else's,” he said.



An earlier version of this story gave the wrong name of Alley's home town. We regret the error.

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