Two and a half years ago, Michael Sauschuck was one of 10 Portland police lieutenants, 13th in the chain of command.

Now, at the age of 41, he is leading Maine’s largest municipal police force, protecting its most populous city as it grapples with street crimes, drugs and nascent gang activity.

His new job couldn’t be further removed from Sauschuck’s hometown of Madrid, Maine, a rural hamlet in Franklin County with so few people its government was dissolved in 2000 and made part of the state’s unincorporated territories, though it still retains its identity.

“It is a small town to say the least,” Sauschuck said, who said the tight bonds formed with lifelong neighbors helped shape him as a young man. “You build a strong work ethic and strong relationships with the people you grow up with.”

Building relationships, communicating openly and honestly, working hard and paying attention to details are all Sauschuck strengths, say people inside and outside the department.

After a five-month search that evaluated more than 80 candidates from across the country, City Manager Mark Rees decided the best person to lead the Portland Police Department was already doing it.

Rees announced Tuesday that Sauschuck, who has served as acting chief since James Craig left for Cincinnati in August, was his choice to lead the department on a permanent basis.

“I would say he’s passionate for the work that he does,” Rees said Tuesday. “He has a very engaging personality. I think that’s one of his skills, is very effective communication.”

Rees will seek the City Council’s confirmation of Sauschuck at Monday’s meeting.

Sauschuck’s route to Portland took him around the world. As a student at Mt. Abram Regional High School, he was drawn to the Marine Corps and its ethos of professionalism and teamwork. He served from 1988 to 1993, at one point protecting U.S. embassies in Moscow and El Salvador. He honed his communications skills. He also worked with law enforcement and decided it would be a good post-military career.

He began studying criminal justice at the University of Southern Maine and working as a reserve officer in Old Orchard Beach. He was hired for the Portland force in 1997.

In 1998, Sauschuck was given an award for heroism when he and then-Sgt. Ted Ross ran into a burning building on Alder Street before the Fire Department arrived and got the residents out safely.

Sauschuck worked on the special reaction team, led the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency’s Portland task force, rising through the ranks.

Chief James Craig arrived in 2009 and began looking for a second in command. “I asked a cross section of officers throughout the department, who do you all consider a leader here? I kept hearing this name Mike Sauschuck,” Craig recalled on Tuesday. “I didn’t even know the guy. He was just out doing the work.”

The department underwent a series of changes under Craig, and Sauschuck was the point for implementing several of them.

“He really is what I consider the future of policing,” Craig said.

The selection of Sauschuck, an internal candidate, as chief, is an indication city leaders believe the department is headed in the right direction.

But Sauschuck said he is not a status quo, stay the course chief. “We will continue to be a progressive department,” he said.

Eric Nevins, president of the Police Benevolent Association, representing front line officers, said Sauschuck is generally well-regarded in the department and officers pleased to have leadership in place so the department can move forward.

“I think there’s going to be some political challenges, being as young in his career as he is,” Nevins said. He said he hopes Sauschuck is able to do what he thinks is best for the city and the department without political interference.

Commander Vern Malloch, one of the finalists for the chief’s job, said Sauschuck is a good leader.

“He practices transparency in all of his interactions I see with the community and with his coworkers in the police department,” Malloch said. Level-headed and compassionate, he has been active on the department’s peer support team, which helps fellow officers who are having a hard time emotionally coping with some of the stresses of the job, he said.

Sauschuck said real policework is not the TV version.

“I realized very early on it is about communications skills and building relationships,” Sauschuck said. “That’s really where the rubber meets the road.”

Rees said he had the benefit of watching Sauschuck run the department for the past six months and was pleased with what he saw, including how he handled the potentially explosive issue of the Occupy Maine encampment in Lincoln Park.

“I was very impressed,” he said, noting that Sauschuck worked with several city departments to deliver a coordinated and measured response. “He made sure his officers treated the occupiers with the respect appropriate given the delicate situation we were in and still are in,” Rees said.

John Branson, the attorney representing Occupy Maine, also spoke highly of Sauschuck’s selection.

“We’ve certainly had our disagreements about certain things but I think he’s handled himself with dignity and professionalism,” Branson said. “He tried to keep it a safe place for both the occupiers and others.”

Sauschuck said he hopes to increase the number of foot beats in the city and says replenishing the command staff ranks will create opportunities for more interactions with the community and officers.

Sauschuck plans to have a member of the command staff ride with an officer each week on a rotating basis, to maintain familiarity with the city, day to day policing and the people who do it. It was a program started under Craig at Sauschuck’s suggestion.

He also plans to attend a neighborhood association meeting each month, rotating through the city, to hear their concerns and discuss department priorities.

Sauschuck takes over a department with 162 officers covering a city that has a relatively low crime rate nationally, roughly 50 crimes per thousand residents, though drug use and the associated violence and property crime continue to drive the city’s crime statistics.

Rees has proposed Sauschucks’s annual salary to be $95,000.

Sauschuck is married to Det. Mary Sauschuck, a member of the department’s intelligence unit. They have a seven-year-old golden retriever, Jake.

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