Steady as a Rock, Chief Toth Soon to Retire
By Doug Marrin
After almost 16 years as Chelsea’s top cop, Police Chief Ed Toth is set to retire on August 15. I had the chance to sit down with Chief Toth to look back over his career in Chelsea.
“There’s a lot of good things in Chelsea, and I just can’t speak enough about the employees here,” he says. “That’s what really gets missed a lot of times. Our city has outstanding employees. Everybody works together. There is this mentality of getting the job done to serve the public. That’s one thing that’s second to none around here.”
Chelsea’s outstanding city staff is a theme the Chief returned to repeatedly in our conversation as the underpinning for his ability to perform his duties.
Chief Toth arrived in October 2006 after retiring with more than 20 years with the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO). His first order of business was to address the outdated and dilapidated police station. The facility needed numerous repairs, and space had run out long ago. “Frankly, it was an embarrassment,” says Toth. “You can still find a video of it on YouTube.”
While working on a new building, Chief Toth also went to work on the systems. Dispatch was still using paper and pencil. Record keeping, reporting, and general communication were antiquated. To remedy the situation, he brought in the CLEMIS system from Oakland County, a cutting-edge system to manage law enforcement information.
Not stopping there, the IT was upgraded with new computers replacing the old ones. The WCSO human resource policies were introduced. Traffic control orders were implemented. Former City Manager John Hannifan procured funding sources for the new station, and Toth was nudged into the project manager role. The new station was built. A few years later, the Chief contracted the law enforcement consulting firm Lexipol to form comprehensive law enforcement policies for Chelsea.
In our conversation, the consistently stoic Toth surprised me with a touch of emotion at recounting his first days in Chelsea and the people then. Upon his arrival, the city threw him an open house at the historic train depot.
“The place was packed with people, and I didn’t know who these individuals were,” he says. “But they treated me as if I was already one of their own. They were and are great people, salt of the earth. That Council that hired me was outstanding people. Their word meant something. I can’t say enough about them. Honest, hard-working, dedicated to the city.”
The Chief has a long list of good memories about the people of Chelsea. When Chelsea Lumber heard the police needed help securing a pallet of backup batteries for shipping, they immediately came and banded the load. “That’s unheard of in a big town,” says Toth.
Another time, to engage kids with the police, Chief Toth wanted to reward them with ice cream when an officer “caught” them doing something right. Michele Balaka at The Treehouse donated tokens for the police to hand out that the kids could redeem for free ice cream.
“The support the police have received from the business community has been outstanding,” says the Chief. “So, it’s not just about me here. It’s all of us working together, and I’m pretty proud of that.”
Early on, Toth faced a staffing crisis. New officers would come to Chelsea, get a couple of years’ experience, and then leave for bigger departments. It cost the city an estimated $17,000 to train and equip a new officer. The Chief had an idea. He began recruiting retired officers. They had a pension and health insurance which saved the city money.
Chief Toth says, “They have a lot of experience. They are comfortable in the job. They have been professionals for 25 years.”
In addition to hiring experienced officers, the Chief increased their online and in-person training each month in areas like de-escalation, firearms, patrol, defensive tactics, and changing procedures.
COVID is another place where Chief Toth gives accolades to his coworkers. It was especially tough in the early days when nobody seemed to know how the virus spread or what length to go to prevent it.
“Again, I can’t speak enough for the employees here, whether it’s the city or the PD,” says Toth. “When everybody is locked down, not going to work, officers showed up every day for their shift. With all the disinfecting, PPE shortages, visiting people’s homes, dealing with people, and things like death investigations, these officers responded every day, never complaining about coming to work when everybody else was home.”
Two years ago, Chief Toth and his department were thrust into the spotlight for actions taken in response to a series of Black Lives Matter protests. The police came under heavy criticism for months with an investigation of the incidents followed by an audit of CPD policies and procedures. I asked the Chief to tell me about it.
“A group wanted to protest, and that’s fine. We did the best we could for seven weeks, but they refused to work with us. They refused to meet with us and go over which days they would protest and where and which direction they would go. I’ve dealt with many demonstrations and protests in all my years. I have never had a group refusing to work with law enforcement to keep everyone safe. We had fifty or sixty officers from other agencies come in to help us. We had a traffic group of five officers that would have to speed down side streets to get ahead of the protesters to block traffic. We don’t know how far they’re going or where. They’re just out there doing it.”
“I talked to the City Manager and Mayor at the time. We had to do something, so we announced that they could demonstrate, but we would take enforcement action in the places necessary for public safety. We didn’t have body cameras. So, I went out and got a video camera. For the next demonstration, we took photos and videos of the individuals involved with this. We didn’t take people off the street and write tickets then and there. It took us months to identify who the people were in the street. And then, we tried to be as benign as possible. Rather than have an officer knock on their door and hand them a ticket, we sent them by certified mail.”
“Enforcement was something I thought was necessary. Protestors were blocking hospital entrances. They were using vulgarity. Residents called me on the phone, telling me their kids were outside. This group is throwing F-bombs around, and could I do something about it? Some who criticized the protestors reported being harassed. It was really a sad situation because we’re just trying to keep everyone safe.”
“Some of our intelligence within the group reported that their intention was never to work with the police. Their philosophy was if you work with the police, you are the police. The plan was never to meet with us to keep everyone safe. So, for demonstrations eight, nine, and ten, we wrote the citations and sent them in the mail.”
“When it went to court, the Council wanted me to dismiss these tickets. I wrote a letter to the Council saying it would violate the City Charter. My employment agreement is under the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics, and I believe it was illegal for me to dismiss the tickets. It would be the same as if I threw away a ticket an officer had written you. It’s called corruption, and I wouldn’t do it.”
“Well, I figured then my days here were numbered. But one thing I will say is that during that time, I got calls from all over the state complimenting me and encouraging me to stick with the Code of Ethics, reminding me of the oath we officers take when we raise our right hand and swear to uphold the law. That’s what I swore to do, and I’ll always do for as long as I’m here.”
Listening to him recount the summer of 2022, I remembered listening in on City Council meetings where the public unleashed a torrent of vitriol against Toth and his department. This went on for months. Through it all, Chief Toth showed little reaction to it. I asked him about this.
“I’m not going to let anybody make me become somebody I’m not,” he replied. “All these accusations were thrown at me and the department saying we’re racists and other stuff, saying we did all these violations. There was a letter to the editor about me saying things that were false.”
“If we did all these horrible things, where are the lawsuits?” he added. If we were so unprofessional and treated people how people accused us, we would have been sued, and the people would have won. But it never happened the way they said. The truth is the truth. We were not out after anybody’s right to demonstrate or right to free speech.”
Chief Toth summed it up by saying, “We are a constitutional police department. We defend the United States Constitution, Michigan Constitution, and City Charter. If we have an ordinance, we will defend that. And again, if this group would have said, ‘We want to demonstrate on this block,’ we would have made it safe for them.”
Moving on in our conversation, I asked Chief Toth about the nature of most police calls.
“The majority of our calls are quality of life calls,” he replied. “We do a lot of mediation between angry people. A lot of people are running at 99.9% of their capacity, and it only takes something minor to set them off.”
Toth also said the CPD does much of what he calls “community policing,” engaging the public and building relationships. This includes things like giving seniors a ride home from a medical visit and getting parents to talk with their young drivers over a traffic stop instead of writing a ticket.
“Everybody has issues,” says Toth. “It goes a long way to listen to people about their issues and connect them to the help they need. We have 100 to 120 crimes a year. That’s pretty darn low, and that’s a testament to our citizens working with officers to mitigate crime.”
Speaking with Chief Toth, I could see he still has a lot of energy and passion for the job, so why retire?
“I’ve been doing this job for 38 years, and it’s time,” he says. “That’s the best way I can put it.”
He still plans on working in law enforcement but in the private sector. He has a position lined up with a private investigation firm helping with background checks for law enforcement employees and other government employees.
“I’ve 38 years in this profession, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” he says. “Coming to work has not really been coming to work. This has been my life. I don’t recommend it to others, but I really have enjoyed doing this. It’s really about the people that I've worked with.”
Congratulations Chief. Thank you for your service, and enjoy your retirement.