Syracuse police chief: The exit interview

Walt Shepperd 12/12/09More articles
Chief Miguel’s desk is attached to a conference table, where he gathers with his department’s deputys to discuss strategy and logistics. Photo by Ellen Leahy.
Gary Miguel never aspired to be Chief of Police. He was working the street and was studying very hard for the civil service test to make sergeant. Once he made sergeant of patrol he thought he had the greatest job in the world. But he kept moving up through the ranks. As Chief, however, he was surprised at the amount of public scrutiny he encountered from the people, the politicians, the media and groups with their own agendas. He just thought of himself as a cop, he reflects now. To be Chief he had to develop a thicker skin.

Both Miguel and Mayor Matt Driscoll will be leaving office at the end of this month. “I’m lucky to have worked with a mayor who is so supportive of the police effort and public safety,” he says. “He allowed me to pick my deputy chiefs. We have worked as a team. When a decision has to be made, each deputy chief has a seat at the table, and we would sit, literally, for hours to make the best decision we could make.”

Proud of his tenure, and the department he has led for almost five years, the view from his desk often includes the darkest sides of the city.

“You recognize what is occurring,” he observes. “You feel badly that it’s occurring. Then you have to say, from a police standpoint, what steps can we take to make it the best that we can. But the reality is that until you make substantial progress in the areas of poverty and the breakdown of the family, it’s unfair to think that any police officer, any police department is going to be able to get a neighborhood back the way it was 20 years ago.”

There has been talk of a national search to select the next Police Chief. What are the advantages and disadvantages to bringing someone in from the outside, as opposed to promoting someone already on the force?

My opinion is that there are many, many very talented people we have within this police department. It’s an over 500 person police department, and there’s people who have really dedicated years and years of their lives trying to make Syracuse a better and a safer place. They’ve risen through the ranks and they know the city, and they know the personnel, and they know the specific issues. So my opinion is the better choice is someone taken from within who has proven themselves to be a leader, to be someone of outstanding integrity, of outstanding character.

You came through the ranks. What did that give you for making the kind of decisions a Chief has to make?

You’ve experienced what an officer in the city of Syracuse deals with, from all the different levels. As a police officer working the cars, as a detective working in Investigations Bureau, you went through supervision as a sergeant, as a lieutenant, leading, in my case, a special investigation division as a captain. There are very specific issues. Policing is very different depending on where you are policing. Obviously metropolitan policing is very different than policing in a county jurisdiction, in a rural area. Even within cities there are specific differences.

When you have experienced all that Syracuse has to offer, both positive and negative, you have a relationship with many of the leaders within the community, the different law enforcement leaders within the city. Those relationships take years to build. When I became Chief I had very positive relationships that I think helped me try to bring resources to the city. We talk about Operation Impact, all of these departments, state, county and federal agencies coming together to really focus on the city of Syracuse. It certainly does help if you’ve had a relationship with many of the leaders for the last ten, 15, 20 years. If an effective relationship is built on trust, then it makes your ability to work together that much easier.

How about the relationships of the officers with the community? Are they more effective if they actually live in the city?

I can understand why some city residents would think that a police chief or police officers should live in the city. But I don’t necessarily agree with that. When you become a police officer, there are many, many sacrifices that not only you, but you and your family must make. I can’t tell you how many birthdays I’ve missed, how many holidays I’ve missed. I believe that any city police officer should be dedicated to the city of Syracuse, should have very specific ideas on how to make the city of Syracuse better. But it’s unfair, I think, to say that if you want to be a police officer in the city and make my contribution there that we’re going to dictate where you live, where you go to school. You very much limit your talent pool when you dictate that.

It would tremendously decrease our recruitment effort, not only for Caucasian males and females, but for minority males and females. When you take a look at some of the really incredible life threatening situations these men and women put themselves in to save someone who lives in the city of Syracuse, to have that type of loyalty and dedication doesn’t mean that you have to live in the city to have that type of dedication.

District Attorney William Fitzpatrick has put significant effort into activating a Police Athletic League for the city. Is that kind of organization needed to enhance police relations with the community?
My thing is we have that now. We have officers in the DARE program that hold huge karate tournaments, most recently up in Lincoln School, all the young people coming together for a purpose. We have police officers, like Officer Clark on the Northside, who takes kids fishing to his lake on a regular basis. All different kinds of Halloween parties, picnics. We have officers who, at Christmas, get names of all the different people in their territories that are needy, and deliver food baskets to these people. We have officers who really become very involved with the community, and that kind of interaction is taking place.

Are they playing ball at this point in time? I know there are programs through Rev. Tannyhill. One of the first things I did when I became Chief was I made Rev. Tannyhill one of the police chaplains, which I was subject to a certain amount of criticism over, because there was an existing police chaplain. My thought was that Rev. Tannyhill was someone who was going to bring police and community together. We worked together to make his church an inner-city summer camp for kids. We actually bought equipment for the kids. We have officers who go there and teach about anger control and drug abuse and gang resistance.

It wasn’t so long ago that the city administration and the police department were denying that there were any gangs in Syracuse. What’s the situation now?

We do have gangs. There are a number of gangs. One of the things you have to do before you can combat the gang problem is acknowledge and recognize that you have a gang problem. That’s something that took place under Chief DuVal’s administration. At that time I was Deputy Chief of Detectives, in charge of the gang squad. We hooked up with the US Attorney’s office. If you take a look at those gangs in the city of Syracuse who are arming themselves with hand guns, that are shooting our neighborhoods up—you identify those individuals through the gang squad, to a crime analysis center we have established, then you proceed federally through the RICO statues.

We have incarcerated over 100 gang members, responsible for gun violence, homicides, and they are serving federal time now. We certainly don’t believe that the answer to stopping the violence is just incarceration. We know we have to get to these kids before they make that decision to be involved with drugs, to be involved with gangs. You have the Media Unit and other groups trying to do that.
But we also know that when it comes to the point with certain individuals, where they now have the guns and they’re shooting people, the police department has a responsibility to take that person off the street.

One of the things that is very different from when you and I were young, is that they glamorize gang life. They glamorize drug sales and the jewelry and the guns and the language and the music. Our young people are inundated with this, especially with video games. Then you have the breakdown of the family. I’ve been here for 36 years. I can remember some of the individuals being arrested now, remembering not only arresting their parents, but arresting their grandparents. So you have a generational problem, with people raising children without the skills to do it effectively.

How do you stop that proliferation of guns?

From a police standpoint we have to try to seize and make arrests of those individuals as frequently as we can. Try to work with different agencies, some federal agencies, to try to not only take the seizure in Syracuse, but to find out where those guns are coming from, and try to stop that flow. What we have done is combine forces with ATF, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. So now in the city of Syracuse, every firearm we see, a report goes to ATF. They track it and try to show what type of patterns are we getting. Many guns are coming from some of the southern states where the guns are very lax, like Georgia. We also see guns that are legally possessed, but end up in the hands of criminals because they are not properly secured.

A sore subject with me is when someone has a pistol permit, and get out of their car and leave their gun under the seat.

Will we ever get back to the concept of policing as officers walking through the neighborhood?

We have beats in neighborhoods, and we have them on specific nights. We have regular beat areas that are problem areas, and we’ll have two officers, usually on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, that they will walk. We have community policing officers that will walk or ride bikes sometimes. That’s the positive side, and that’s important.

The down side is that our demand for police service, our calls have gone up incredibly. In the year 2008, we responded to over 202,000 calls. That represents a 67 percent increase since the year 1974, and we do that with approximately 5 percent more police officers today than we had in 1974. So you have officers assigned to the patrol division that are literally going from one call to the next call, to the next call, to the next call. You need cars to make those responses. When you draw from that force of officers to put them on beats, you make the area they can respond to, and respond to quickly, extremely, extremely small.

Walt Shepperd is the producer of the Media Unit Youth Theatre troupe. He is also the senior editor of the City Eagle - reach him at

CATEGORY: General Society
TAGS: Operation Impact,Gary Miguel,Chief of Police,syracuse chief of police,Matt Driscoll,District Attorney William Fitzpatrick,Onondaga county law enforcement,Stephanie Miner,Walt Shepperd,City Eagle,Ellen Leahy,Police Athletic League
EDITION: The Eagle

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