Dec 31, 2009 Herm Card Uncategorized
“My mother, who was a very wise woman once said, ‘Gary, you’re always going to go through transitions in your life,’ and this is one of those transitions.” So said retiring Syracuse Police Chief Gary Miguel, whose upcoming transition will end a 36-year career in the Syracuse Police Department.
The Solvay native, now a resident of Marcellus, where he raised his family, announced his retirement in November.
“Thirty-six years — that’s a lifetime. I started when I was 21. I had just graduated from Syracuse University in the spring of 1973 and that fall I started in the police academy.”
Miguel says that “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. After graduating from Solvay High School, my first two years I went to Onondaga Community College. I was in liberal arts, not in any criminal justice program, but as an elective I took a criminal justice course. It was really interesting — it turned out to be my favorite course, and I took another one second semester. I said to myself that this might be something I could be interested in.
“Then, when I transferred to Syracuse University for my junior year, I became aware of a federal program called the Criminal Justice Intern Program where they were trying to draw college graduates into the law enforcement field. They had a criminal justice program where you wrote a term paper, and they took the best term papers and gave those kids a summer job in some aspect of the criminal justice field. I ended up riding 40 hours a week for four weeks with the Syracuse Police Department, 40 hours a week for four weeks with the Onondaga County Sheriff’s department, and two weeks of 40 hours a week with the East Syracuse Police Department. When I got done with that program I not only knew that I wanted to be a police officer, but I also knew where. I wanted to be a police officer with the Syracuse Police Department.
“My first year as a cop my pay was just over $9,000, and in 1972, they had been paying us $100 a week, clear, to ride around for the summer. The cops I was riding with couldn’t believe it. That was pretty good money in those days.”
“I knew this was for me — it was something I looked forward to everyday. When I graduated from the academy I was assigned to the old Crime Control team and wound up working with a lot of the same officers that I had been riding with. The CCT was assigned to the five or six worst crime areas in the city. Not only did we respond as a uniformed officer in the patrol car, but we also did investigative work, other than felonies. That was a great opportunity.”
“I was working the midnight shift and really enjoying it. Then I came to roll call one day and the sergeant read off a group of transfers and the transfers were to what was then called the Organized Crime Division. That was the undercover operation — narcotics, vice — and they read my name off. I was really enjoying what I was doing, but (then-chief) Tom Sardino wanted to change some of the personnel in the OCD.”
Miguel hadn’t asked for a transfer and didn’t really want one, but the change turned out to be a good one. He found that he really enjoyed his work in his new assignment, reaching the rank of sergeant in three-and-a-half years and being put in charge of the vice squad.
“When I made captain, after 10 years, they brought me back running all of narcotics, vice and intelligence, which was now called Special Investigations Division.”
Speaking of the unwanted transfer, he said, “It’s funny the way your career goes — some things are just meant to be. Somebody must have been looking out for me.”
Changes on the job
In the 36 years that Miguel has served, rising through the ranks from patrol officer to sergeant to lieutenant to captain to deputy chief, to chief, he has seen major changes in the job of law enforcement, some for the better, some not so.
“The technology is incredible compared to when I was a patrol officer. If you wanted to talk to the police station — not as part of a radio dispatch call — you’d go to one of those red fire department call boxes, call the fire department, and ask to get punched through to the police department. Now there are more channels on the radio, cops have cell phones and there are computers in the cars. They are getting information back and forth constantly on the computers.”
On the down side of change, the major concern to Miguel is that “The danger factor to the police officer because of gun and gang violence has certainly changed.”
Saying of his days on patrol duty, and with a definite tone of sadness in his voice, “When we would grab a suspect with a gun, usually it was a ‘Saturday night special,’ a gun so cheaply made that when they shot it they were lucky if it didn’t go off in their hand and it was doubtful if they could actually shoot somebody. Now, the firepower they have on the street can sometimes surpass what we have. And, their thought process — the lack of respect for life — has changed. The lack of respect for so many things is reflected in the level of violence in the community. When I was a young police officer and you chased down a suspect with a gun, you were likely to win a medal for it. Now, these things are weekly occurrences.”
Because of this, the Chief’s job has changed with the times as well.
“We have Operation Impact now. We have a lot of different agencies working together. When have you ever seen Sherriff’s deputies and State Police patrolling the street? The challenges today are really elevated and it would be foolish for us not to be working together.
“We are able to call each other and allocate resources to each other. We know each other and work together.”
On a command level, “What started with Chief DuVal was COMSTAT. We meet constantly to analyze crime patterns and statistics. The analysis of crime patterns is far more advanced than it ever was. The allocation of resources to solve those problems is far more advanced than it ever was.”
Call a bust
The chief avoided speaking of the exploits that earned him recognition as a law enforcement officer, but he was willing to share what has become a somewhat legendary drug raid he ran as a lieutenant. “There was a drug operation in a house on Huron street — a little tiny dead-end street. Every time we’d have a search warrant, the lookouts would spot us and they’d flush the dope. I was running a street corner drug squad then, and I got my squad together and we were briefing in the Centro bus garage near there. I looked over and there was a “Call-a-Bus” and I said let’s try something a little different. We rolled down the street in that bus, just like the Trojan horse, and they didn’t pay any attention at all — we hopped out and made the bust.”
The headlines the next day called it “Call a Bust.”
Asked what he would single out to be proud of during his career, he cited his involvement in bringing the agencies together and helping to foster the cooperative attitude among them.
“All the good things that we have done and accomplished have come from that kind of cooperative effort. We’ve created community policing with neighborhood centers. We’ve worked with the many new ethnic groups to assure them that police are not to be feared as they might be in their native countries. Our officers work in the community and learn the languages of the people they serve, We have worked with the Onondaga Nation to solve common problems. Sure, there are things you do on the street, but what I am most proud of is what I just described.”
The “things on the street” that he mentioned but glossed over, have, among other recognition, earned him two Police Benevolent Associate medals for valor, 15 commendations for excellence in law enforcement and the Mayor’s Achievement Award for disarming a man brandishing a handgun.
Changes for the chief
Asked what he will miss most about leaving the SPD, the chief’s response related to the street-cop role he has played throughout his tenure with the department.
“People always seem to say this, but it’s true. In reality, it’s all the different people you meet. For me it’s all different aspects — on the job it’s the police officers, the command staff I’m working with, but there’s also all the people in the different agencies. I’ve been very fortunate. They’ve received me very well. There are so many people that I’ve had really nice interaction with, and sometimes it’s during very difficult times. Despite the reputation of some area as high crime area, there are so many good people that live in these neighborhoods that I’ve had the opportunity to meet. I will miss the interaction with them.
“What I’m looking to do in retirement is to bike and kayak and get up in the Adirondacks. I want to camp more and I want to golf. I’m going to be in a transition now. There are things I want to do. We, [Chief Miguel’s wife Kathy is a retired English teacher], have a daughter who has her own home and my dad is 93 — I’d like to help them out. Now I’ll have more time to do that.
“In this job you are in the center of things, and there are so many high pressure situations that you need to react to — that is going to dramatically change.”
What won’t change is Chief Miguel’s legacy. Thirty-six years serving Syracuse and Onondaga County. Thirty-six years making us safer and more secure.
A career to be admired. A career to be proud of.