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Rethinking Policing

In Focus
NAME:Michael Sullivan
COMPANY:Phoenix Police Department
POSITION:Interim Chief
Michael Sullivan has a history of reforming police forces. As the Phoenix Police Department’s Interim Chief, he is focused on recruitment and building stronger relationships with the community.

When Michael Sullivan entered policing in the mid-1990s, he recalls following a well-trodden path into a popular profession. For the now Interim Chief of the Phoenix Police Department, it’s proved a very rewarding career. In his current capacity, he heads up a department serving America’s fifth-biggest city and one of its fastest-growing metropolitan areas.

But recruiting has become a challenge for police departments across the United States in the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the ensuing global civil rights movement. Sullivan says the atrocity has left scars on the policing profession. It also left the force in Phoenix with a shortage of 500 officers.

“It’s made us really have to rethink as a profession how we do our business, how do we provide the service that citizens expect and how can we do it differently,” Sullivan says candidly.

Starting as a Bike Cop

Sullivan has seen policing evolve in the United States in the three decades since he started with the then-Louisville Division of Police in Kentucky. He has been at the forefront of the evolution, through on-the-job experience and professional training – including programs with the Southern Police Institute program at the University of Louisville and the Federal Bureau of Investigation National Academy.

He has also served in a variety of roles throughout his long-serving career. Early on, Sullivan worked as a bicycle patrol officer. It’s an experience, he says, that offered the opportunity to be embedded in the neighborhood he worked in.

“We are here to prevent and control crime, provide public safety and provide justice to victims and communities. I don’t know what can be more powerful than that.”

“It’s getting to know those people’s stories and humanizing everyone because, as law enforcement officers, sometimes we see the worst,” he explains.

That experience in building relationships has also influenced his outlook on policing.

“When things would happen on the street, I would get the attention of other people that I’d had relationships with, and they would come help me de-escalate situations,” he recalls.

Sullivan later became a street crimes detective. Once again, he spent a lot of time on the street, interacting with people in the community. This allowed him to see the good in what are often disadvantaged areas that a patrolman responding to emergency calls doesn’t get to see, he explains.

Perception is Reality

Sullivan began his move into supervisory positions after a merger between the police departments in the Louisville area. A new chief arrived with a maxim that Sullivan took to heart: Perception is reality.

“When you’re talking about communities, you can have all the facts, all the video, all the hard evidence you want, but if this is somebody’s perception, it’s their reality,” he says.

“I’ve tried to be a great simplifier because when it comes down to it, we have a mission that everybody should be able to buy into.”

Sullivan also learned simplicity. It’s a principle he’s implemented in Phoenix.

“I’ve tried to be a great simplifier because when it comes down to it, we have a mission that everybody should be able to buy into.”

Policing a ‘Challenged’ City

Sullivan was recruited from Louisville to Baltimore, which he described as a ‘challenged’ city for which he has a deep love.

He arrived following protests over the death of Freddie Gray, a Black teenager who died of spinal cord injuries while being transferred in handcuffs in a police van. The department was also under a 2017 consent decree, which involved court-ordered reforms.

“That was the most incredible learning experience I probably had during my entire career,” Sullivan says.


“It was making sure we had structures in place and promoting the messages that police reform and crime-fighting are not mutually exclusive,” he explains.

He describes his policing philosophy as a three-legged stool of policy, training and above all, culture. That culture includes accountability.

“You want to make sure that when you interact with people, that you do it respectfully,” Sullivan says. “You give them a voice, you explain your actions and you give them an opportunity to see that your actions are being made fairly.”

Phoenix Calling

Sullivan moved to Phoenix in 2022, assuming the reins of a police force under a civil rights investigation by the Department of Justice. He’s brought the lessons of Louisville and Baltimore to the position, while also focusing on getting young people interested in policing and creating positions that civilians can perform that don’t require a badge and a gun.

Sullivan is also working closely with the police department’s charity nonprofit, the Phoenix Police Foundation, which he describes as a key pipeline into the force.

“They fund a good part of our cadet program, those young adults who are able to come and get a real introduction to the police department,” he explains, adding that he’s seen numerous cases of cadets who transition into paid positions after high school and then into sworn officer roles at the age of 21.

“You want to make sure that when you interact with people that you do it respectfully.”

Beyond that, it also provides funding for equipment and new technology from partners such as Versaterm, which develops computer-aided dispatch and records management systems for law enforcement.

No matter the reform he’s tasked with in each new role, there’s always the constant of what it means to wear a police badge.

“We are here to prevent and control crime, provide public safety and provide justice to victims and communities. I don’t know what can be more powerful than that. When you show up to work every day, it’s a mission that you can be proud of.”

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