Chief Balken earns well-deserved honor
By Mayor Kent Guinn
Last month I wrote in this space about the Ocala Police Department earning an Excelsior Award, the highest honor that can be given to a police department in the state of Florida, and now another award comes to our beloved department, this directly to our chief, Mike Balken.
In early March, Chief Balken earned the Unsung Hero Award from the Community Foundation at its recent Inspire Gala. It might seem odd that Balken would be considered “unsung” since he is, after all, the most recognized person in law enforcement, but it makes perfect sense when you consider all that he does behind the scenes and outside public view. In his presentation speech, Rusty Branson, Regional President of SouthState Bank, noted Balken’s commitment to the community and all he has done to help young people and combat domestic violence.
I will never tire of waving the banner for our police department and I believe these accolades are certainly warranted, but they just did not come out of thin air or by accident — there was a plan set in place over a decade ago and that plan is certainly bearing fruit.
When I first became mayor I said I wanted a police department that citizens respect and criminals fear. Today, I believe we have a department that is respected by citizens, feared by criminals, but even respected by criminals as well. Again, it was all part of a plan. When Sam Williams resigned as chief in December of 2011, I knew Greg Graham would be the right person to replace him. I knew the kind of police department I wanted and Graham saw in Balken the right qualities to help him accomplish his five rules for officers in the department: Treat everyone with respect, do the right thing, ask for forgiveness rather than permission, look for ways to say ‘yes,’ and have fun at your job.
Graham knew all the players and knew how to put all the people in the right places and that included most prominently Balken. Graham identified Balken as his guy and when Balken earned his degree was promoted to captain. Graham promoted Balken up the ranks knowing that was the person he wanted to succeed him. Eventually, Balken was promoted to Deputy Chief and when Graham died in a plane crash back in 2020, that time would come earlier than expected or hoped. Out of that tragedy, though, Balken has done a remarkable job carrying on Graham’s philosophy in leading what is truly an outstanding police department.
The 15 years it took the OPD to earn the Excelsior Award Balken was there playing an integral role. Although not a captain or major for much of that time, Balken nonetheless was at the forefront.
Chief Graham was truly beloved and respected and when he passed away there likely would have been a huge void and understandable pall over the department, but Balken stepped in and has not only upheld Greg’s legacy, but has even taken it to new heights in my opinion. It’s so satisfying to see Chief Balken given credit for a job well done in this community and it is a reflection on the entire department — officers, staff and administrators alike.
Congratulations to Mike and the entire department. A city and its mayor thank you.