For the fifth time in four years, Allentown is in search of a new top cop.
Interim Allentown Police Chief Tony Alsleben, facing mounting pressure from residents and City Council members, is leaving the department effective Sept. 6, Mayor Ray O’Connell announced Monday.
O’Connell earlier this month nominated Alsleben for the permanent chief position. Council was set to vote on his confirmation Sept. 16.
In a statement, Alsleben said he was proud of what the the force accomplished under his leadership, but that the contentiousness over his nomination has “become an unneeded and divisive distraction at a time when it is critical the City be united, and the Department remain focused on its mission.”
“The City has always been a part of my soul and I’m truly grateful for the opportunity to serve my city as chief,” the Allentown native added.
Alsleben, 45, was appointed interim chief by O’Connell in April 2018. He was supposed to be a stabilizing force for the department, which has been rocked by departures by previous chiefs. Glen Dorney, Keith Morris and Joel Fitzgerald all have resigned since October 2015.
But some on council criticized his ascension from the outset of his tenure, arguing he wasn’t the right man for the job. In recent months both elected officials and residents have called Alsleben a poor communicator and an aloof leader — criticism that has intensified over the course of a violent summer.
Twenty-seven people were shot in the city in June and July. One died. Then, on Aug. 1, officers killed a man who was firing shots into the air in the area of Fifth and Tilghman streets.
During a recent meeting on crime statistics hosted by City Council, community members said Alsleben has not been visible enough in the city.
“We’ve had enough,” said Milagros Canales, community activist and president of the Old Fairgrounds Neighborhood Association. “We need you to get up, pull your big-boy pants on, and find us a chief that’s going to come into the community and know each and every one of the parents who are suffering because their children are dead.”
Alsleben is a 19-year veteran of the force and a graduate of Allen High School. He was an active member of the police union leadership, battling to keep a generous pension benefit that prompted a mass exodus of officers in 2005. He served in the police academy and as sergeant and quartermaster before being named captain in 2014. As captain he was responsible for the city’s East Side and Center City, before taking over as police liaison for special events.
According to the city’s most recent budget, the city pays Alsleben a $131,300 salary.
Alsleben has defended his leadership in recent weeks. On July 18, he said the force is using “every resource we have as strategically as possible to get violent people off the streets.”
He also noted that serious crime was slightly down the first half of 2019 from the first half of 2018, and that last year saw a 16% drop compared to 2017. Violent crime so far this year was up slightly from last year, but down compared to the first half of 2016 and 2017.
In his statement, Alsleben said the police force is made up of “hardworking dedicated professionals who always persevere regardless of the challenge.”
He also thanked everyone who “has supported me both publicly and privately during this process.” He declined to comment further Monday.
In the city’s statement, O’Connell said he was unable to talk Alsleben out of stepping down. O’Connell called his first cabinet pick a “fine interim leader of the department” who had a “deep commitment to the city and all its residents.”
“That’s why I had hoped that he would be chief of the department for years to come,” O’Connell continued. “He should be credited for things like the establishment of the fifth platoon, which statistics show is paying great dividends. I wish Tony nothing but the best in the future.”
O’Connell, who declined to comment further Monday, plans to meet with staff after Alsleben’s departure to discuss future leadership of the department.
It’s a discussion city officials have had repeatedly in the past 46 months.
Chief Joel Fitzgerald left the job in October 2015 to head a force in Texas. Keith Morris, then assistant chief, was named as his interim successor, but left in March 2017 for a position at Penn State University. Glen Dorney, assistant chief under Morris, assumed the chief position that month. He announced his departure in April 2018 for a position with South Whitehall Township.
Council President Roger MacLean, who served as city police chief until 2013, said Alsleben was a good officer under his command and would have done a good job “once these distractions got put aside.” He called his resignation a loss for the department.
MacLean said Alsleben’s departure was unexpected, and there is no one natural successor, he said.
“If it was me, I’d be looking at my two assistants,” MacLean said referring to assistant chiefs Stephen Vangelo and Gail Struss, both 22-year veterans of the force.
Struss was offered the job last year by O’Connell before Alsleben was selected, but declined the position.
Councilman Ed Zucal, a former city police officer who has been Alsleben’s most vocal critic over the past month, commended him for “making the right move.”
“He was not a popular guy with the officers,” Zucal said. “You can’t blame him for the shootings, but the citizens spoke their piece at the last meeting, and I think he recognized that.”
Zucal said Capt. Glenn Granitz deserves to be selected as the next chief based on his presence and popularity in the community and his willingness to hit the streets with his subordinates.
“Glenn makes it to every function he possibly can,” he said. “Both the community and the force want a leader who they feel is part of them.”
While not ready to name anyone in particular, Councilman Courtney Robinson also said the next leader needs to be admired by the community.
“Now is the time we have to focus on identifying someone to lead the department who will help repair any riffs this summer of violence has created in the community,” Robinson said.
Councilwoman Candida Affa, who has been a strident supporter of Alsleben, reiterated Monday that the chief was given a raw deal. Nothing he did during his tenure warranted his resignation, she said.
“I don’t care who was the chief of police with these shootings,” she said. “Gang bangers don’t care who is the chief of police.”
Affa said it was clear, however, that Alsleben was not going to get the four votes necessary from City Council to become permanent chief. Under that circumstance, his resignation is for the best, Affa said.
“I think it’s the best thing he could do,” she said.
Councilman Daryl Hendricks, another former police officer who had not previously said how he planned to vote, acknowledged Monday that he found the community’s input at Wednesday’s council meeting “very troubling.”
“It would have been difficult for me to move forward in confirming him,” Hendricks said.
Affa, who has sat on two search committees that helped choose police chiefs during then Mayor Ed Pawlowski’s tenure, said she would like to see a new committee formed to assist with the decision once a short-term interim chief has been put in place.
“I always lean homegrown, but if there’s not enough experience …” she said.
Hendricks, who leads council’s public safety committee, also said he’d like to see someone selected who has ties to the community, or at least the greater Lehigh Valley. He recommended against doing a national search, which “has never worked out well in the past.”
Chiefs selected following nationwide searches include Fitzgerald and Stephen L. Kuhn, who served for 15 months in 2002 and 2003.
Until the end, leaders of the police union stood by Alsleben. Scott Snyder, union president, said Alsleben was a proactive administrator and “untied the hands of front-line supervisors when it comes to deploying additional officers to the street if call volume dictates the need.”
“There have been positive changes introduced with regard to training, technology, and safety equipment with more to come,” Snyder said in a July statement, which he read at last week’s council meeting. “Regrettably, as you see many times with change, there is often pushback from those who don’t fully understand it or refuse to embrace it.”
Zucal has insisted the union leaders don’t speak for the rank and file.