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Lowell police chief Steven Bukala resigns

NOTE: Click on this link to read the entire sheaf of documents provided by the city: https://www.dropbox.com/s/cqp8xvzss2da38z/Bukala FOIA correction.pdf

After more than 20 years of service to the community, Lowell police chief Steven Bukala resigned from his position on Thursday, June 4.

According to a city interoffice memo written by city manager Mike Burns and dated June 4, Bukala had been counseled or disciplined three times in the past three weeks for conduct unbecoming a police officer and allowing personal feelings to influence professional conduct.

"As the city's chief of police, your actions and statements reflect directly on the city, both on duty and off duty," Burns wrote. "You are held to a higher standard than the citizens of this city. You serve all citizens regardless of viewpoint and your credibility as an impartial law enforcement officer is critical to your role as chief. [...] It is our role to protect and serve, not to opine on the issues of the day. We do not insert ourselves into political issues, whether directly or indirectly."

The memo ended with an ultimatum, either Bukala resigned by 5 pm or he would be terminated at 5:01 pm. Bukala didn't bother waiting, he emailed his resignation to Burns and mayor Michael DeVore at 1:14 pm that day.

"I have enjoyed my 27 year career as a police officer," Bukala wrote, "However, I have decided it is time for me to start my life outside of the Lowell Police Department and my future looks very bright. I will always remember my 24.5 years as an officer for the city of Lowell. I am thankful that I was able to serve my last [seven] years as the chief of police."

It started on Tuesday, June 2, when four young white men were observed walking up and down Main Street with guns. After worried citizens began to call the police, city manager Michael Burns instructed Bukala to create a Facebook post, which he did.

Bukala posted, "Just to inform the public we will have four open carry 2nd amendment citizens walking Main Street. They took the time to inform LPD that they're coming out. They are well within their second ammendment [sic] rights to do this. We are aware and no need to call us. We at the Lowell Police Department support the legally armed citizen and the second ammendment [sic]."

First the post was edited to remove the last sentence, then it was deleted altogether.

“When I observed the last sentence of the statement, it appeared to me this was taking a political position and possibly escalating rhetoric," Burns wrote in a document summarizing his investigation of the situation. Mayor DeVore received four complaints in 10 minutes and contacted Burns to have the post changed. "Social media chatter on this was very hostile. People were in support of the statement and there were people against this response."

Apparently, Bukala had spoken with the four men before their march and, in a post on his personal Facebook page, he referred to them as "fine young men" and continued, "They saw what happened in Grand Rapids. They said it's not going to happen here. We have your backs." Some citizens were offended when it came to light that these "fine young men" had Confederate flags and other violent posts on their social media accounts. Some wondered if the chief's reaction would be the same if four young, armed people of color started marching up and down Main Street.

Quickly, other social media posts by Bukala on his personal account were also called into question, including some that were construed as disrespectful to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. For example, Bukala posted a picture of himself shopping without a facemask and, in an email to a member of the public, referred to keeping “the Gretchen Posse off my back and the city's back” in reference to a proposed but abandoned “Senior Caravan” event that would have violated the governor's various pandemic-related executive orders if allowed to go ahead.

"Probably didn't need to use the term 'Gretchen Posse,'" Burns admonished Bukala in a May 27 email.

Bukala was hired as chief on Nov. 4, 2013 to replace retiring chief Barry Getzen. His career in Lowell had ups and downs. He was instrumental in getting body cameras for the department, LPD officers were among the first in the area to use the devices. Bukala was also involved in the Rob Bliss "Secret Santa" viral video where the LPD passed out $7,800 worth of free merchandise to pulled-over motorists.

In June 2017, Bukala was charged with five counts of “Willful Neglect of Duty by a Public Officer" [MCL 750.478], a misdemeanor carrying a maximum penalty of one year in jail. He was accused of using the Michigan Law Enforcement Information Network, a police database, for personal reasons unrelated to his job. In Sept. 2017, Bukala pled guilty to one charge and the other four were dropped. After 90 days unpaid leave from the LPD, he paid a $1,000 fine plus $425 in fees and had to take a LEIN re-training course. Sgt. Chris Hurst acted as interim chief those 90 days.

“I wanted to ensure that Chief Bukala takes responsibility for what he did without losing his ability to work as a police officer,” Barry County prosecutor Julie Nakfoor Pratt said at the time. “From this point on, whether Chief Bukala succeeds in maintaining his career and improving his integrity is up to him.”

The city's statement about the matter last week was brief and to the point.

"On Thursday, Steve Bukala resigned as chief of police after more than 24 years of service to our community," Burns wrote. "We wish him well in his next chapter and appreciate all he has done for Lowell. Sgt. Chris Hurst will serve as interim chief while we undertake a search."

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