A Conversation with Benton Harbor Police Chief Mingo: Part 1

In a state that leads the nation in unemployment, there are bright spots --places like South Haven, New Buffalo and St. Joseph.

What makes St. Joe different from the others is a bridge; some call the longest bridge in the world.

It separates St. Joe and Benton Harbor, not so much by distance, but by color and income.

St. Joseph is a mostly white, affluent beach town bustling with visitors and boutiques.

Benton Harbor, which is 95-percent black, is cloaked in poverty and seen as a dangerous place you don't want to visit.

One man is working hard to bridge that gap and bring Benton Harbor back to the glory days.

He never intended to be Police Chief, and is stepping down in September, but Al Mingo believes Benton Harbor is on the rebound.

Al Mingo knew violence at an early age. His family lived in Chicago in the 1950's when his older brother was killed.

"A gang of kids pushed him down a flight of steps and he struck his head on the concrete," remembers Chief Mingo.

He was only seven years old.

To get his family away from big city violence, Chief Mingo's father moved them to the sleepy town of Covert Michigan, just 20 miles from the city Mingo now protects.

"My dad found Covert and settled us out in the boonies, no street lights, no ambulances, no police, no taxies, no nothing," says Mingo.

A culture shock for the family of seven.

"We were afraid of the darkness, we were afraid of the silence so we ended up calling the police quite often -- every time we heard an owl or a strange noise," Mingo adds.

Those visits would shape Mingo at an early age.
Mingo says, "That's when I became interested in law enforcement, as a six, seven year old kid watching these troopers."

Chief Mingo served on the Covert police department for three years, making just $5.50 an hour.

Then fulfilled his dream, spending 25 years as a Michigan State trooper, with every intent of retiring six years ago.

"I had absolutely no desire to continue my career in law enforcement," Mingo admits.

Mingo didn't even live in Benton Harbor, but during his last year with the state police he was sent down to help the new chief, Sam Harris from Chicago, get a feel for the state.

Chief Mingo says, "I didn't know in the back of his mind he was looking at me as second in command. But I enjoyed working with Harris, Harris was just number one top notch, so I said, 'okay Sam I'll stay on for a while'."

Shortly after agreeing to stay on, riots broke out in 2003 over the death of a black motorcyclist, killed during a high speed chase with police -- a white police officer from Benton Township, not Benton Harbor.

Two days of rioting put Benton Harbor in the national spotlight, even bringing Jesse Jackson to town.

Mingo's wife and daughters wanted him to retire.

"They came to me and said, what are you doing? You're going to leave the state police, you go to Benton Harbor and you have all this civil unrest, you have all these problems. You're out there with shots being fired, what in the world are you doing," Mingo remembers.

What he was doing, and what he wanted to do, was change Benton Harbor; once a thriving town with just as much success as its sister city across the bridge.

When Chief Sam Harris resigned in 2005 Mingo agreed to step in as chief.

"I saw some things that were happening in the city, some of the potential and I wanted to contribute to that," says Mingo.

"I worked hard to get involved and intermingle with the community and engage the community, that's what I believe what the city needed more than anything else," he adds.

And Benton Harbor is changing.

Violent crimes are down and homeowners are taking better care of their homes, and a strange thing happened along the way.

"It became a love affair between myself and the city," Mingo says. "I just fell in love with the city, I really did."

Maureen McFadden continues her talk with Chief Mingo, in parts two and three of her conversation. Mingo talks about why he is retiring and how he's worked to weed out undesirables, including bad cops.

And some big projects and business opportunities he says are already reversing the white and black flight that brought the city down.

If you'd like to see the rest of Maureen’s three-part series on “A Conversation with Benton Harbor Police Chief Mingo,” just click on the related links below.

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