Sclabassi brings experience to forward-looking position

Sunday Times Newspapers

TAYLOR — After 18 years with the department, Mary Sclabassi has a fair understanding of what she expects as police chief. She’s more concerned about the expectations of her officer colleagues.

“I’ll talk to all the officers to find out what they expect of me,” Sclabassi said.

Sclabassi, serving as one of the two commanders in the ranks, was named to replace outgoing Chief Dale Tamsen who retired Friday after three decades in law enforcement. Monday Sclabassi begins her tenure as the first woman to serve as chief in the department’s 63-year history.

The milestone was noted by some, but Sclabassi said the gender distinction means less than it had when she began her career in 1994.

“To me it’s not an issue,” Sclabassi said. “However, I have seen a change from 18 years ago. I was told early in my career I would have to work harder.”

At the time older officers were less accepting of adjustments in the department or police work, she said.

Younger officers she served with early in her career — which included having Tamsen as her field training officer — have a different criteria for evaluating a potential chief.

“They want someone who’s competent,” Sclabassi said. “Someone who’s been there in the trenches.”

Sclabassi started as a patrol officer, obtained a master’s in criminal justice from University of Detroit Mercy and is a graduate of Northwestern University’s School of Police, Staff and Command. Three times named Officer of the Year, Sclabassi earned numerous city awards during a career spent entirely in Taylor.

The department Sclabassi will lead has been through a series of harsh challenges, the murder of an officer-on-duty and a prolonged uncertainty over the stability of staffing levels. The city last year laid off dozens of employees, including public safety, and questions lingered whether more would follow suit.

“We’re in better shape,” Sclabassi said. “In my mind we’re on the way up.”

Tentative signs of regional economic recovery include the city returning the fire department to previous manpower levels, reaching agreements with employee unions and the unlikely announcing of any more cutbacks any time soon.

Sclabassi said having that stability allows her to continue Tamsen’s renewed emphasis on training, among other ideas. She plans to make a priority of modernizing the department’s policy and procedure manuals, and — when appropriate — address any needed staff additions.

Whether setting policy or training rookie officers, Sclabassi said that technology has been a bigger change than the gender of a chief in her nearly 20 years on the job. Few computers were linked to police cars in 1994, one of many aspects of the current reality.

Another change is the transient nature of criminals in the past 20 years. City limits are ignored as the easy travel between communities and beyond requires greater cooperation. Notifications are shared by a community of Downriver agencies on a regular basis.

“We didn’t do that before,” Sclabassi said. “Now there’s more information sharing.”

Emails and social networks are just part of the many changes Sclabassi served through, and as chief she hopes to implement a combination of keeping current with some traditional skills.

“We can’t forget face-to-face investigations,” Sclabassi said. “Get in the neighborhood and get to know them. There’s a tendency to rely too much on technology.”

(James Mitchell can be reached at