Chief Kitchen: Flying High and Laying Low in Retirement

Chief Kitchen: Flying High and Laying Low in Retirement

(Crystal A. Proxmire, 11/24/2011)

As retired Ferndale Police Chief Michael Kitchen and his wife Meri prepared to head south to Florida for the winter, the 57 year old life-long Ferndale resident sat down with The Ferndale 115 News to talk about his years in the department and his views about how the City has changed.

Kitchen retired after 35 years on the force, at a time when the City was downsizing and restructuring.  He and Fire Chief Roger Schmidt retired in 2010.  That same year voters changed the City Charter, making the City Manager the point person between the City and department heads like those in the Police and Fire Departments, a point of political contention at the time.  There were also layoffs in both departments, and lengthy union contract negotiations that made the retirements less ceremonial than had they happened in better economic times.  A retirement party at Boogie Fever helped send Kitchen off with a smile, and the former Police Chief still enjoys life in Ferndale and camaraderie with those he watched come up through the ranks to lead the Department today.

A Ferndale Family

“I have lived in Ferndale since 1955 and childhood makes everything seem to have been simpler back then,” Kitchen said. His parents were “Royal Oak folks” who worked government jobs.  His father was a civil engineer with the Air Force and his mother was Ferndale City Clerk for 29 years.  Kitchen took jobs working as a custodian in the schools and as a garbage collector with the DPW (Department of Public Works) before entering the Police Academy at the age of 21.
He met Meri at Ferndale High School and married her while he was in the academy.  Together they created a family, with daughter Maryn still living nearby and another daughter, Michelle, who is a police officer in Sterling Heights and has three children. Kitchen got his bachelor’s degree from Oakland University, and his Master’s from Wayne State.

He, Meri, his mother, in-laws, and one daughter still live in Ferndale and Royal Oak Twp., though he will be enjoying his second winter away shortly.

How Has the City Changed?

“The most positive thing is that Ferndale is a survivor and has managed to adapt and reconstitute itself through the years,” Kitchen said.  “It was much easier when Detroit was a positive influence on the region, and the challenge of Detroit’s demise has become ours.  Our survival has been possible because people have been and are still drawn to Ferndale because they feel safe, they know that the infrastructure is sound, there is a viable school system and essential city services have been maintained.  The dividing line from Detroit and Ferndale is invisible and yet look at the difference…it is a stark contrast.

‘What I “like” and “don’t like” is rather immaterial because I have adjusted to the surroundings and still choose to live in Ferndale.  Ferndale has changed from a blue collar, union, Catholic, conservative Democratic town to an extremely liberal Democratic town, which has sort of followed the path of the party.  There are way fewer children and many, many more singles and couples with small families.  I worry that the focus is now weighted to the glitz of the downtown and the hospitality industry and away from our neighborhoods, and a lost manufacturing base that is truly the backbone of any city’s ultimate success. We’ve lost our important industrial base, now we must not lose the security of our neighborhoods, and I fear the possibility of that erosion to some extent.”

Kitchen said one time of positive change was in the 90s during “Bob Porter’s time.”  Porter started out as a volunteer with the cable department, who got involved in the planning and campaigning for municipal (CARE) bonds which replaced critical and crumbling infrastructure such as roads and sewers.  He then went on to be Mayor.  “Those decisions started Ferndale’s revival and they’re the reason Ferndale is in fairly good shape today compared to some other cities.  I have a lot of respect for what Bob Porter did for the City.”

With a 35 year history in the Ferndale Police Department, Chief Kitchen has seen the evolution of police work as well as the difficulties that cities and police departments face when confronting crime problems, issues of diversity, and economic choices.  Despite the challenges and struggles, Kitchen says “it was a good run, and more than 90% of it was fun.  I have no regrets.”

Touched by a Serial Killer

Shortly after Kitchen joined the Ferndale Police Department in 1975, a series of murders created an unprecedented media storm and mass police organization as everyone was on the lookout for the Oakland County Child Killer.  According to Wikipedia “Mark Stebbins, 12, of Ferndale, was last seen leaving an American Legion Hall on Sunday afternoon, February 15, 1976. He had told his mother he was going home to watch television. His body was found on February 19, neatly laid out in a snowbank in the parking lot of an office building at Ten Mile Road and Greenfield in Southfield.”  This was the first of at least four youth abductions and killings over a 13 month period.  The killer was never found.

“I wasn’t assigned to the case, but I’ll never forget it,” Kitchen said.  “It really gave me a sense that what we were doing was important.  Even though I was a rookie patrolman and didn’t work on the case directly, we all were involved in looking out and keeping residents safe.  Chief “Red” Geary and his command staff reinforced that, good police work, by everyone on the streets, makes a difference.  Chief Geary felt very strongly that the suspect would be apprehended by solid police work, probably by an alert patrolman just doing his job. That case was never solved and over the years there have been plenty of other sad and scary cases, and things Kitchen will never forget.

“One time I was out on my own and had pulled over a suspicious car with four guys who had just escaped from prison and were in a car they had just hijacked, shooting the driver. I didn’t know; they were just way to suspicious at the time of night and location they were in to me,” he said. “When I got back in my car and ran their information, I realized who they were, and that they had a gun in the car.”

Fortunately backup arrived and the men were arrested without incident, but moments like that showed Kitchen that police can never know what dangers they face as they do their day-to-day jobs.

“None of its scary when it’s happening,” he said of that encounter and others, “It’s always scary after.  When you start reflecting on the danger you were in, that’s when you shaking starts.”

Shooting at the Rialto

In 1984 another scary incident prompted the Ferndale Police Department to structure a SWAT team, a program which has grown to a multi-city effort over the years.

On July 3, 1984 a gunman walked into the Rialto on Woodward, which is now Dino’s Lounge, and took a waitress hostage.  The man let people leave, but shot two, including Detective Dan Bolen who was there having coffee.  After a four hour standoff, Ferndale Police moved in and took the gunman out.  Kitchen, who had taken tactical training, was put on the roof of the building to see if the waitress could be saved through some sniper work through a sky light.  Ultimately, Kitchen said, officers were able to get in through a secret passage.  Unfortunately, the woman ultimately died, but those shot, besides the gunman, recovered.  “After that, Chief Sullivan started the Ferndale P.D. SWAT team,” he said.  Kitchen trained briefly with the team but was promoted before being able to serve.

“I inherited the SWAT team and it grew while I was the Chief.  We were pleased to join with Royal Oak, Madison Heights and Berkley, and we found grants and used forfeiture funds for the equipment.  The team remains as an outstanding example of mutual collaboration,” he said.

“As a Sergeant, one thing I was trained to do was to be a hostage negotiator and I don’t think I was very good at it, even though I had plenty of opportunities to try to talk people out of certain situations, including barricaded gunmen.  One time Hazel Park’s chief couldn’t make it to a standoff in his town, so Tim [Collins, the current Chief] and I went out and talked with this guy all night.  He was in a house right near a school and he had discharged a weapon in the home.  We had to do something by morning before the kids started showing up, so finally we used tear gas to get him out.  Sometimes the most timely and effective negotiating tool is to simply tell them, you come out or we’ll gas you out,” he said.

Technology Changing the Game

Over the years one major change has been the arsenal of tools that law enforcement officers have to do their jobs.  Kitchen remembers when fingerprints were done with ink and the only computers were back at the office.  Now patrol cars have computers on the dash and instant access to endless information sources.  Digital footage records interactions.  Video conferencing allows police to obtain warrants quickly and judges to speak to prisoners without them needing to be transported.  Evidence is gathered and processed electronically.  And there are tasers.

“Tasers have changed the game,” Kitchen said.  “Now it’s easy to take down a bad guy without getting into a situation where you may be in danger or need to use lethal force.  Tasers can be shot without them having to get too close, and that makes a huge difference in apprehending suspects.”  He also credited gas, like that used to force out the angry pent-up gunman, and spike strips which deflate the tires of a getaway vehicle, with ending dangerous situations easier.

Kitchen’s daughter is a police officer in Sterling Heights, and Kitchen said he’s glad tasers have come along to make it safer for her than when he was on the street.  “These things will take down anybody.  Even the smallest gal can take down a six or seven foot thug with no problem,” he said.  “The more less than lethal options we have, the safer police work is for everybody.”  As far as his own daughter, Kitchen is not worried about her safety.  “It is dangerous, but I have confidence in her.”

Women on the Force

Kitchen noted that tasers made it easier for smaller officers, often women, to “level the playing field.”  Though the field is more level now, Ferndale continues to have a predominantly white, male force.  When asked about the noticeable lack of women and minorities, he explained that it isn’t about prejudice or preference, but a side effect of the hiring guidelines that Ferndale has, and has had, in place.

“When I came on we had strict residency requirements, that’s why a lot of the older guys grew up here and stayed here.  That changed with State Law and Ferndale’s residency requirements changed as well, allowing anyone to apply.  But when you have Civil Service, boundaries still don’t matter much. It also means that we are bound by test results. Chiefs still have the pick of three, meaning that when you hire someone new they can be any of the top three test scores.  If you pass someone up, however, you better have a darn good reason to do it.  You can’t just take someone with a lower score without some serious justification,” he said.

“I was there when we hired the first woman,” Kitchen said, “and it was a huge deal, but it was time.”  He said it was the early 90s when Officer Mary Maloney (Whiting) came on board.  “People thought it was going to be a big problem and there’d be all these issues; that people wouldn’t respect her, and such, but it all worked out.  There still aren’t a lot of women in police work yet, but it’s not a new thing either.  With tasers and the new technology there’s no reason for it to be an issue.  The Ferndale Police Department has a long and storied history of being tough, aggressive and effective, and introducing a young female officer into that environment was challenging.  Suffice it to say that we were blessed to have an officer with tremendous self-confidence to break that barrier and to pave the way for the successes of our female officers that have followed her.”

Minority Hiring and Why the Department is Full of White Guys

In terms of minority hiring, Kitchen explained that there are two conditions, under which cities do hiring.  One is “at will” and the other is with “Civil Service.”  “At will” city employees are easier to hire and fire.  Civil Service arrangements instill more requirements for new hires, but they also have guidelines in place so that employees are not hired or let go for political or personal reasons.  Testing means cities give jobs based on qualifications (merit) rather than favors, and employees have some protection in case they disagree with city leaders.  “In reality, there are very few employees who would rely on Civil Service protection vs. their union protection, but it is an option.  Civil Service was created to protect public employees from the whims of politics and politicians,” he said.  In Ferndale, by charter, all employees besides the City Manager fall under Civil Service protection, though not all cities are structured the same.

“It is a challenge for all Cities to diversify in a highly competitive and rigid realm so we always encouraged our applicants to be well prepared to write a test in the 90’s if you want to compete.  It is either that or legislatively change the current, rigorous standards, which I don’t think is beneficial for anyone concerned.”

The Marijuana Era Begins

One area of change that occurred towards the end of Kitchen’s career was the emergence of laws lessening restrictions on medical marijuana.  As patients have been able to get medical marijuana cards, and dispensaries have considered making Ferndale their home, ethical and legal issues have risen in the law enforcement sector.

“Marijuana legalization, under the guise of ‘medicine’ is a nonsensical means to an end and everyone knows it,” he said. “I am personally not in favor of legalization, but legislators should either make it legal or not, and if they do, tax it to the extent that it will pay for all of the negative effects that are inevitable.  As for policing, the P.D. will enforce whatever the new law requires and I’m sure we would hope that people would use marijuana or any other substance responsibly if given the choice.”

Changing of the Guard

While Kitchen was Chief, he worked closely with Captain Tim Collin, who is also a long time member of the police force and Ferndale resident. When Kitchen retired, Collins was promoted to the Chief position.

“I have a million fond memories of Chief Collins who is the among the most honorable and heroic police officers I’ve ever known, ’nuff said.  We have been through hell and back both on the street and “down the hall” together and, in retrospect, all good.

‘Most folks don’t know, but he is also one of the funniest people you’ll ever meet. I recall one incident, among thousands, that stands out – when Rick Geary knocked Tim out cold with a flashlight.

‘We had chased a bad, very bad, guy on foot for about a half mile through yards, over fences, etc.  When we caught him he was fighting like hell, and in an effort to give the suspect a thigh strike stun with his flashlight, Officer Geary hit Collins in the head with the backstroke, rendering him temporarily unconscious… This was a long time ago,” Kitchen said.

“Chief Collins and I worked together for 30 years and he was my Captain for 14 years, so any advice I could have given to him has been.  I am proud that he has made a successful transition and have every confidence that the Ferndale P.D. is in very capable hands.”

Since He’s Been Gone

A couple of things have changed since Kitchen left.  One is that there have been cutbacks to the number of officers, and another is that beginning in January the Department will be on a 12 hour shift schedule with consistent groups of officers working together each day.

“I know Tim [Collins] is doing the best he can with what he has, but I don’t know how he can work without a Captain, and with less guys on the street.  I remember when we had 53 guys on and we were still always running, always,” Kitchen said.

He is unsure about the effectiveness of 12 hour days as well.  “That is a long day for anybody, and the P.D. has, by far, the most stressful job.  I know it will save a little money, and we considered it when I was Chief but we could never get the unions totally on board.  I think they’ll do their best with it, but I think in a couple years you may see them wanting to switch back.  We’ll see.”

Retired Life

While he still “keeps tabs” on what is going on with the police, Kitchen says he is prefers to enjoy his retirement and not be too politically involved.  “I’m happy with the way things are going.  I like Mayor Coulter and I think he’s doing a good job.  Politics, even at the local level is a full contact game and it can be frustrating.  I had a lot more fun in the early days when I was on the street.  I don’t think I’d get involved unless something really made me angry.”

“After working in one place for 35 years, the thing I miss most is the people of the organization and, of course, in a police department that thinks of itself as family, I miss the successes we had and watching the truly positive impact that the Ferndale P.D. had on our people, our citizens and the region.  It is different watching from the outside,” he said.

Kitchen now spends his time babysitting for his grandchildren, boating and being active in an airplane flying club.

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