Walt Shepperd's City Agenda Report 2010: Police Chief on Safety

Walt Shepperd 01/20/10More articles
Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler in his office suite’s conference room in the Public Safety Building on State Street in Downtown Syracuse.
Frank Fowler: Public safety means the public feeling safe

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of interviews with people prominent in areas on the agenda for the city under a new administration. This week the discussion of public safety is with Chief of Police Frank Fowler.

Public safety seemed to come up in almost every mayoral forum in the past campaign. What does public safety mean from a law enforcement perspective?
Public safety is the ability to create an atmosphere in which everyone in our geographic area of law enforcement feels safe going about their day-to-day business.

Given contemporary American society, is it an impossible dream that everyone can feel safe?
No, I don’t think that’s impossible. It’s a daunting task. It would take a lot of effort, but I don’t think it’s impossible.

It would seem, statistically, that any of us would have more of a chance to get hit by a car from an inattentive driver who is talking on a cell phone than to get shot in the street. Yet the latter seems a greater police priority. How do you establish priorities?
You don’t necessarily pick. It’s a very delicate balancing act. Both those items are of equal importance. You’d be doing the citizens of this community a disservice if you ignored one to be more aggressive or dedicate more resources to the next. You have to address both simultaneously, and it becomes a very delicate balancing act with limited resources and manpower.

We have a great intelligence section here at the Syracuse Police Department that we rely very heavily on to point out to us trends in violence and where we’re having our most issues in terms of violence. And we also use that for our quality of life issues. Those are the small things that affect the most people every day. We have our Crime Reduction Team that goes out to address those quality of life things, and we have our Gang Violence Task Force that goes out and addresses the gangsters that are out there shooting one another.

The RICO (federal racketeering statutes) approach to the gang situation seems to have had success, but drawn controversy. What is the balance there, and where are you now with the gang situation?
We’ve made progress, but we have a lot of work ahead of us. For years we buried our heads in the sand when it came to this issue. Unfortunately in those time periods, the people involved in the gangs became extremely comfortable engaging in all types of behavior out in our community. It wasn’t until (former police chief) Dennis DuVal and our District Attorney Bill Fitzpatrick and a host of people around them were brave enough to stand up and say, “We have a gang problem, and we’re going to address it.” Then Gary Miguel came behind them and said, “We do have a gang problem, and we’re going to continue to address it, but we’re going to address it in a more specialized fashion.”

Hence the Gang Violence Task Force was formed. That process is going to continue on, because when you look at the violence that takes place in our community, likely you’ll find that the people who are firing off the guns have some type of gang affiliation. It’s important to keep that pressure on until people realize that you’re not going to be able to fire off a gun in our community without having to deal with law enforcement, and the citizens of this community stand up and say, “We’ve had enough of this.”

Is there any way to get control over the proliferation of guns, and the seemingly easy availability?
Not right away. This is a mentality of morals and values eroding over the years, and it’s going to take some time for us to build momentum back up. Our young people are exposed to a lot of different things on a daily basis. I often tell people that when you look at a young person, adults tend to take for granted that that young person comes from a safe environment, and hasn’t been exposed to a lot of things that are going to have a lasting effect on them—what occurs in their households, their neighborhoods, what they see on TV, in the movies, what happens in the malls, what they’re exposed to when they play videogames.

They become desensitized. Born from that is their willingness and the ease of picking up a gun and firing it at another human being. Can we change that? I’m confident that we can change it because I’m personally an optimist. It’s going to take a while. It’s going to take a collective effort—not just from law enforcement—law enforcement has a role in this, we’re not the only entity in this battle, and we can’t be successful by ourselves.

How would you say we are doing with the issues of public safety compared to other similar communities?
I think we’re doing well. Certainly we have our work cut out for us. We need to do better in a lot of these areas.
In dealing with the problems, this is an urban environment; there are inherent issues. Taking that into consideration, I think we’re doing well. Are we satisfied? No. We’re not satisfied because there are still issues. You pick up the paper and you get a chance to see what’s happening in the city of Syracuse in black and white, boldly, coming right at you. So we can do better if we use the newspaper as our report card.

However, reporting those things is done poorly and unfairly. It’s done unjustly. You can very easily find out what’s going on in the city of Syracuse by reading the newspaper. And then you go online to Syracuse.com and you see how the bloggers proceed to comment about the issues in the city. You very seldom see what’s occurring outside the city, in the suburbs and surrounding areas. No one can tell me there’s not crimes taking place out there. In the interest of fairness, there should be some type of balance there. If there is some other agenda, then make that agenda known so that we can know what to expect when we pick up the paper.

One issue of reporting seems to be people in the community being unwilling to report crimes they have witnessed. Is there fear of retaliation? Is there mistrust of the police?
We’ve gotten a lot better with that. We still have a long way to go. There’s a big misconception out there, particularly among teenagers and young adults. They use the term “snitching” without really knowing what it means. There’s a huge difference between snitching and reporting a crime. I grew up in an urban environment, in the streets. I’m very familiar with the streets and very familiar with how the streets operate. If you are a victim of a crime you have a right, responsibility and an obligation to report that crime as a citizen.

Snitching goes way back to when you had two or more people involved in a criminal enterprise and they take some type of oath—“If one of us gets jammed up, we’re not going to tell on the next guy.” If someone in that circle gives up some information on someone else from that circle and causes them to get arrested also, that’s were the term snitching was born.

Let’s look at the rapper TI. TI was involved in purchasing guns illegally down in Atlanta. The person he was using for the purchase got arrested first. He turned around and snitched on TI, arguably the most popular rapper in the entire United States at the time. If they’re not getting the memo at that level, if the message has not been delivered at that level, then this snitching thing is obsolete. Michael Vick’s arrest for the dog fighting stemmed from a search warrant for his house. People who were living at his house, who he was basically taking care of financially, they turned around and snitched on Michael Vick.

There’s a lot of fear, and at certain points the fear is legit. But when you have people stand up collectively, arm-in-arm, hand-in-hand and say, “We’re going to stand, and we’re going to take a united front,” they can look around and see that they outnumber the bad guys, and the bad guys aren’t so tough anymore.

The city population is almost 40 percent of color, a statistic not reflected on the police force. Do we need to recruit more people of color for the police force?
We certainly need to recruit more people of color within the force. But what we pay for is professionalism. Yeah, certainly, a person’s culture and their background and the experiences that they bring to the table will certainly help them in doing this job. But we’re looking for professionals, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity. However, the city of Syracuse deserves to have a police department that’s reflective of the demographics of the city. We deserve that.

We’re working very hard on that. Mayor Miner’s committed to diversity throughout the city. I’m confident that we’re going to make progress in those areas. But in the meantime, the vast majority of the men and women we have out there on the streets are professionals, and when you call for the police, you’re going to get good services from them.

If you could wave a magic wand and say, “In my tenure I will accomplish three things for public safety,” what would they be?
OK. With my magic wand, I would say, a better communication between the police department and the overall community. Breaking down those barriers to communication, getting rid of those myths and fallacies that cloud our communication. Safety. I’d like to see that no one in the city gets hurt or harmed in any way. And then, maybe a law enforcement mechanism to discourage these young people from picking up these guns in the first place.

Next week: a discussion of Justice with District Attorney William Fitzpatrick.

CATEGORY: General Society
TAGS: Frank Fowler, Public safety syracuse, Public safety,Gang Violence Task Force,Syracuse Police Department,RICO,federal racketeering statutes,Dennis DuVal and our District Attorney Bill Fitzpatrick,Mayor Miner
EDITION: The Eagle

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