Ocala’s new Chief of Police Mike Balken speaks to TV20 about Black Lives Matter movement, defunding the police and more

Published: Nov. 23, 2020 at 6:04 PM EST
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OCALA, Fla. (WCJB) - We’re finally hearing from Ocala’s new Chief of Police, Mike Balken, in his first TV interview as the new chief.

He replaced former Chief Greg Graham who was killed in a plane crash a month ago.

Chief Mike Balken officially took the position after a 5 to zero vote by the Ocala City Council at last Tuesday’s meeting.

“At this time, I’d like to bring forth my nomination for Chief of Police to replace Greg Graham and that person is Deputy Chief Mike Balken,” Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn said during the meeting.

After a quick presentation by Mayor Guinn, and public comment from the widow of former Police Chief Greg Graham, Amy Graham, “During his tenure as Police Chief for the City of Ocala, Greg and I had many conversations regarding OPD. We all know Greg fiercely loved what he did, the people he worked with, and serving this community,” Graham said, “I want to express, on behalf of Chief Graham and my family, our support of Mike Balken as Police Chief of the City of Ocala Police Department.”

And with a unanimous vote and standing ovation, Chief Mike Balken was named the City of Ocala’s new Police Chief.

We spoke with Balken over Zoom due to concerns of COVID-19.

This transition is something he and his mentor and former chief have been preparing for.

“Chief Graham and I had talked about the progression of the agency over the next five to 10 years and what it would really look like and what the future of policing really across the country, but I tell my staff this all the time, certainly solving crime is great, but it’s always second fiddle to preventing the crime to begin with and that was really where we were moving the agency,” Balken said.

In addition to continuing to fight the opioid epidemic, Balken also said working on community relations is something he wants to focus on.

“We had a Black Lives Matter Demonstration in March, just a couple months ago. It started off on the square. Chief Graham and I were both there, we both marched in the march and I think that says a lot. I think the outcome of that march, it was peaceful. I think people want to be heard. I think they want to be heard by their leaders, by the people that run these agencies. There’s concern and they want to make sure that what happened to Mr. Floyd doesn’t happen here,” Balken added.

Chief Balken also discusses former Chief Greg Graham’s legacy, community relations, the Black Lives Matter movement, defunding the police and more.

A full transcript of the interview is available below:

TV20′s Julia Laude: Let’s start first by introducing yourself.

Police Chief Mike Balken: Sure, it’s a great story, or should I say a boring story. I’m about to turn 48-years-old here in December. I’m married to my wife Dawn. We’re childhood sweethearts. I met her when I was 12 on the school bus headed to middle school. We raised two kids here, they’re grown, Jacob and Riley. They’re in their early 20′s. Both of them are in the medical profession. My son is an RN at Shands in the Thoracic ICU and my daughter is studying nursing now right here at the College of Central Florida.

JL: In becoming the Police Chief, this is something that you and Chief Greg Graham had spent a lot of time together working towards?

MB: I met Chief Graham when he was a relatively new Sergeant when I started back in 1994, Chief Graham was a sergeant in the Investigative Unit out at our District 1 precinct or office and we kind of hit it off early on in my career and I was lucky enough to work in a lot of the different units in the agency and usually he was some where in my chain of command, whether that was a sergeant lieutenant captain, major or Deputy Chief. We worked at different levels of the agency together for the better part of 19 years until he left and went off to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to become chief up there. I think when he left I was a Lieutenant and worked in some other facets of the agency until he returned about eight years ago and kind of picked up where he left off so it was great to get him back.

JL: In working so closely with Chief Graham, he was your mentor?

MB: Yes, he was a mentor to everyone at the agency, certainly me. He taught me a great deal about what to do, what not to do. He was a supervisor and ultimately had a lead in the agency, in a forward thinking, progressive fashion.

JL: Having a relationship with Chief Graham, this much be just a very difficult time for you all.

MB: Our agency is still reeling obviously from the loss of Chief Graham. He had a interesting way to make all of us feel like we were like his favorite. He just, he really embraced his relationships that you build over decades and he knew that the most important part of that agency is the people and that work there and he really tried to maintain quality, close relationships with everybody that worked at the police department.

JL: You’ve been in this position for almost a week now, are there any goals that you have for the department going forward?

MB: I’ve had a little bit of time to think about this since Chief Graham’s passing, in the interim position over the last couple of weeks, but no surprises, Chief Graham and I had talked about the progression of the agency over the next five to 10 years and what it would really look like and what the future of policing really across the country, and obviously none of us can ignore what’s going on in the national media with some of the bigger agencies, the bigger cities across the country, but we talked about that quite a bit and certainly they’re will be no major changes from as far as how we approach that and how Chief Graham had planned to approach that. I think we were in lock-step on how to move the agency forward. I tell my staff this all the time, certainly solving crime is great. It’s great that we can go take an initial report and we can forward that case to a detective and work that through to an arrest and ultimately a successful prosecution and that’s great but it’s always second fiddle to preventing the crime to begin with and that was really where we were moving the agency. We have some really robust crime data software that Chief Graham purchased just a couple years ago and really transitioning from an old system into a new system. We were really hoping to expand on that and do a lot of crime forecasting and we wanted to get first place. We want to prevent the crime from happening and never occurring and that is really what I’m excited about doing is moving us forward in that fashion, creating a real sense of security within the community. I don’t want the crime to ever happen, that’s first place, that’s the gold medal for us and that’s how we’re really going to approach our policing tactics on a day to day basis.

JL: With the new First Responder Campus that just opened, there’s a lot of themes of unity, and trying to bring the community together, so would you agree that the opening of this first responder campus is coming at a critical time?

MB: I think it’s a great time. I’ll start by saying this, first and foremost, I think we have a tremendous relationship with our community here in Ocala, I really do and that’s across the gamut. We have a relatively large minority population both African American and Hispanic as well, which is a growing part of our population and I do think our engagement there is really great, but I always think that can be improved upon and I think that’s, having that district office right there in the community that we serve. That replaced a district office that was, it was out on the highway out on Highway 40, out 10 to 12 blocks west of where the current campus is and it really consisted of a modular building, a mobile home for lack of a better term, that the officers were working out of and although it was easily accessible off of State Road 40, it really wasn’t in the community so we wanted it to be closer to the people we serve and for it to be on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, I think says a lot. I think it’s certainly more easily accessible to the residents in the area, not just drive ups, but people on bikes, pedestrians, they can walk up and really engage us. Having the basketball court, the community center there, on a campus that we share with our brothers and sisters in the fire service, I think it sends a message. This should be a destination where kids can up and play, they can interact with cops, and firemen on a daily basis. We can build connections and my goal honestly is to really use that as a recruitment tool. I want to engage those young boys and girls at a very young age. I want them to be the future of the police department and the fire service for that matter, so yes it’s a great step in bettering what I already think is a great relationship with our community.

JL: Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter and defunding the police, are those topics a concern at the OPD?

MB: I think that should be a concern and a front burner of every agency across the country - that the bottom line. Again having the relationship we have with the community, if you remember we had a Black Lives Matter demonstration or march just a couple of months ago. It started off on the square…Chief Graham and I were both there, we both marched in the march . I think that says a lot. The outcome of that march was peaceful. I think people want to be heard. I think people want to be heard by these leaders, by the people that run these agencies. There are some concerns. What happened to Mr. Floyd doesn’t happen here. So I think there is reason for concern across, across all forms of government. When we hear defund the police, what we see in Ocala is a ‘defend the police movement.’ I see our minority communities get behind their law enforcement and I want that to continue. You do that by being transparent. We are going to make mistakes; we are human beings. We have a young agency and there is always room for improvement. We will never get it perfectly right 100 % of the time, but when the community knows that, that’s our goal I think it saves us a lot of the things that we see across the country in bigger cities, bigger agencies.

JL: Not afraid to communicate with people at these rallies? Protests?

MB: No, that’s the first thing we do. You touched on a pretty important word, communication. I think that’s the crux of these problems many times… There’s a percentage of people out there that think their voice isn’t heard, and I do think a lot of the problems across the country can be diffused by some early dialogue and some transparency - some willingness to hear some of the concerns and have an invested interest to let people know that they are heard, their problems are going to be dealt with, they are going to be dealt with in a transparent way, and that we want everyone to feel equal in our community that’s what makes this a great community to live in. I really believe that. And I think it’s obvious that Chief Graham felt the same way.

JL: Anything you want the people from the city of Ocala to know.

MB: Chief Graham said it right, and it is certainly something that is near and dear to my heart, as was his, our opioid epidemic we have going on, across the country, but we do have a major problem in Marion County. We’re seeing spikes that are far higher than what it should be for our community our size. It is proven to be deadly. I think we’ve had 350 cases in Ocala alone this year, overdose cases and we’re up to almost 40 deaths just this year, over 100 over the last three years. This is a huge problem in this community. I would argue if we had that many deaths over homicides that Chief Graham and I would have lost our jobs two or three years ago - it’s that big of a problem. It’s something that is so pervasive in our community. We are trying to attack this from the criminal aspect. We just made our third arrest or indictment I should say that provided these deadly drugs to one of our citizens. And we will continue to do that. This is really going to involve education and stopping the demand portion of this. As long as the demand for the drug is there, supply will be there. We can’t arrest our way out of this.

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