Jay Norris had just taken over the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Association when he approached the Portland Police Department with a request.

It was about 2013, and for years a community policing officer had been stationed in a room in the association’s headquarters. The rent, he said, was paltry – around $63 a month. Norris wanted to renegotiate.

On the other end of the negotiation was Police Chief Michael Sauschuck.

“It was touchy, because he wanted his officers in there and he didn’t want to pay more,” Norris said.

Then word got out that Norris was trying to evict the police – which was never his intention. It nearly blew up in his face. “Some old lady had thrown coffee on my car,” Norris said.

But before the tempest could boil over, Sauschuck saw another solution, Norris said. The police moved into the Cummings Community Center, expanding their presence.

“He was personable enough to say, ‘I will message it. I will let people know … that you did not do anything,’ ” said Norris, who was relieved at the compromise.

The next Christmas, “out of the blue,” an envelope arrived from the chief. “I get the most lovely personal Christmas card, that he appreciates me,” Norris said. “It resonated with me.”

The gesture was among the ways that Sauschuck, over his 21-year career at the Portland Police Department – which culminated last month in his retirement after six years as chief – earned his reputation as one of the top managers in Portland government.

Last week he began a new role with Portland as an assistant city manager, where he will earn $140,000 on top of his nearly $5,000-per-month state pension; he earned nearly $120,000 as chief. The position is one of two assistant manager jobs created by City Manager Jon Jennings in a broader restructuring plan that was finalized with this year’s annual budget.

As he looked back on his time in the police department, Sauschuck highlighted how the 220 sworn and civilian employees there became like his second family.

“I hope they say, ‘Mike cared about us, took care of us,’ ” Sauschuck said. “It’s a group that I’m incredibly proud of, and there’s a thousand examples of why that’s the case.”

Colleagues and community organizers described how Sauschuck, sometimes amid difficult circumstances or contentious debates, found ways to convey his investment in the people he serves – listening, processing and providing facts, even if he did not always fully agree with the outcome.

They are skills that have left an indelible mark on the Portland Police Department in both policy and culture. Now, a week into his new role as assistant city manager, Sauschuck said he plans to bring the same approach to city government as he’s brought for more than 20 years to law enforcement.

“I think Mike’s biggest success is something the public doesn’t see,” said interim Police Chief Vern Malloch, who worked as Sauschuck’s assistant chief. “It’s how he treated people here and how he took care of the staff. He’s been probably the most supportive and understanding and compassionate chief I’ve worked with. And the community reaps the benefit of that.”

A ‘TOTAL COUNTERPOINT’

Michael Sauschuck’s career in law enforcement began in Portland in 1997 as a patrol officer and since then has tracked alongside some of the largest changes the city has witnessed in years.

When he was hired, Munjoy Hill was still a rough neighborhood and Congress Street was dotted with empty storefronts. Sauschuck was assigned to patrol public housing, and also served as a crisis negotiator and on the special reaction team – a type of SWAT unit – along with a stint with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency.

Sauschuck was hired by former Police Chief Mike Chitwood, who led with a brash style and was a frequent face on local television.

Anne Pringle, a city councilor from 1990 to 1994 who now leads the Western Prom Neighborhood Association, said she would at times grow frustrated with Chitwood and said Sauschuck was a “total counterpoint” when he took over the department.

“(Chitwood) had the name ‘Media Mike,’ because he loved public attention almost more than he did grappling with the problems the city had at that time,” Pringle said.

“Then (Sauschuck) got promoted, and my experience with him personally is he’s very professional, he’s personable, and he’s accessible. By that I don’t mean I always get what I want the police to do, but I understand why that’s not possible. If I contact him, I always get a response back.”

Sauschuck played major roles in shifting how the police department does business, while also pushing programs that made his police force happier, more effective workers.

First as a lieutenant, Sauschuck helped lead a committee that restructured patrol shifts, from a traditional five-day workweek of eight-hour shifts to a four-day workweek of 10-hour shifts.

The rank and file endorsed it because the change led to 52 extra days off each year while also beefing up nighttime patrols.

Sauschuck also embraced the deep statistical and case-by-case crime analysis that has helped the department solve a higher percentage of crimes while making fewer arrests, according to federal crime data.

In 2016, the most recent year for which data are available, police solved nearly 30 percent of major crimes as defined by federal standards, up from 22 percent in 2012, when Sauschuck took over, and up from roughly 15 to 19 percent in the years immediately before Sauschuck was promoted to chief.

PROUDEST ACHIEVEMENTS

The challenges Sauschuck faced have mirrored national issues. The recent scourge of heroin addiction, which killed a record 418 Mainers in 2017 and continues to generate hundreds if not thousands of overdose calls, continues to place a strain on local resources.

Sauschuck also highlighted the flagging national mental health system, a burden that is transferred to beat cops who are called to respond when crisis strikes.

In an interview, Sauschuck identified his work around supporting mental health systems and helping people with substance use disorder as some of his proudest policy achievements, and said they are examples of how police should serve as connectors between government systems and programs. But he was critical of the larger failure of society to help people before their situations require the police.

“We have great first responders who want to do the right thing, to divert people from their systems,” he said. “But where do we divert them to? We lack resources in our mental health and other systems, and that’s a travesty. We’re sitting idly by while people are dying.”

Another hurdle in recent years came after a series of police shootings across the country drew intense protests, leading to a climate of skepticism and mistrust of law enforcement. Although none of the controversial killings occurred in Maine, a protest in July 2017 by Black Lives Matter activists precipitated 17 arrests and a protracted legal battle that resulted in the charges against the protesters being dismissed.

Portland’s rate of complaints against the police have ebbed and flowed, without a clear trend, and in most years the number of officers cleared or exonerated of wrongdoing vastly outnumbers the complaints that are sustained, according to city statistics.

Along similar lines, Sauschuck and others said the police department has room to improve on recruiting and retaining minority officers.

Portland is Maine’s most diverse city. According to 2016 U.S. Census data, 16 percent of residents are people of color, including 8.4 percent who are black or African-American.

Of roughly 146 police officers, only six, or 4 percent, are people of color – five are black and one is Asian – and 16, or 11 percent, are women, all of whom are white.

Malloch said he intends to continue efforts to bringing more minority applicants into the hiring process.

CLEAR EXPECTATIONS

Malloch credited Sauschuck’s open and direct management style with much of his success. As a boss, he makes expectations clear and is not afraid to approach hard conversations.

“He’s the kind of guy who is able to get input from all sides,” Malloch said. “He’s a negotiator and a problem solver, and those two things are great skills to have.”

Sauschuck also led an initiative to completely reorganize how officers are promoted through the ranks. It offers more training on management skills before applicants take a written advancement test.

Sauschuck said that looking back on his law enforcement career, he counts his proudest moments by pointing to the work of others.

“When you work there every day,” Sauschuck said, “there are a lot of the little things that happen but no one really hears about: ‘Officer so-and-so showed up in the middle of the snowstorm and shoveled my driveway for me.’ An elderly citizen will reach out and say something like that. When I took part in debriefs and tactical scenarios and making operational plans, when you carry off some of these things, you’re proud of what these officers do.”