Fowler Tells Why He Chose Police Work

Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler: ‘This is an ideal career for me’

Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler sat down for more than an hour with
The Stand’s founder, Prof. Steve Davis, for a discussion that focused on recruitment of minority officers
for the city police force and what influenced him to become a police officer.
This is Part II of an edited transcript of their discussion.

In Part I last month, Frank Fowler said he is committed to increasing the percentage of minority officers on the force; now they account for less than 8 percent of the total of about 480. Fowler describes police work.

What is it that makes being a police officer a good job that I would want to apply for, whether I am a minority or not?

It’s more than a job, it’s a career. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a culture. Becoming a police officer, there’s a lot more to it than a simple job. You’re going to come into a long-standing history and tradition and culture that’s attached to it. And you’re going to be introduced to, brought into, a fraternal organization that has years and years of experience, and there’s a lot of pride and honor that goes with that.

I guess it’s a little bit of a Catch-22 because you’re trying to attract minorities where there aren’t many, so some people have to be trailblazers?

Yes. To build upon our reputation here at the police department.

A lot of stories that you read, sometimes they say things like education is such a challenge, and it’s just not cool, sometimes, to be an achieving student. Maybe it’s just not cool to get good grades because that seems to show that I’m buying into the system. I would guess that might apply a little bit to being a police officer?

Of course, there’s a tremendous amount of peer pressure associated with becoming a police officer. I grew up in St. Louis, Mo., and when I was growing up there, I would never have considered becoming a police officer. And when I got here, I saw this as a great job opportunity, and I tell you, the only thing I regret is not becoming a police officer sooner. I love this job. I love what I do. I love my ability to help people and to make a difference in people’s lives on a daily basis. It’s a great career opportunity.

Why did you say, though, that when you were a boy growing up in St. Louis you wouldn’t have considered being a police officer?

Because of the environment I grew up in and the experience I had with the police wasn’t the greatest.

How so?

Because I grew up in a predominantly African-American community, and your first interaction as a young child with the police officer is when the police officer comes into the neighborhood to arrest someone that you know. You don’t know this police officer. You’ve never laid eyes on him, but they just took Mr. Smith away, and you know Mr. Smith – in your opinion as a young child – as a nice guy. You haven’t witnessed him do anything wrong. Mr. Smith could have been a cold-blooded murderer for all you know, but you didn’t see him kill anyone. All you saw him do is what he does every day in the neighborhood. But the police officer in this case is a stranger, and there wasn’t time nor the opportunity for police officers to build relationships with the young people in the neighborhoods. So they were viewed as strangers.

Do you hear regularly people stopping you and saying, “The cops, they don’t get us.” Do you get that a lot?

I do. I do hear that and then when people say that to me, and I ask them for specifics, that’s where things kind of change. When you tell people to give you the full story, they are going to be minus some details, and I chalk that up to perceptions, people’s perception. We as human beings, we have to do more, we have to do better at learning from one another. And this business of getting to know one another, it’s not a one-sided thing. The community has to open up and learn about the police department. Likewise, the police department has to learn a little bit more about the community. And until we get both sides working at this, it’s only then that we’re going to get better.

How do you get the community to participate in that? Obviously, there’s a lot you can do on this end, and there’s a lot you are doing, as you told us, but how about the other end?

You have to make the police department as transparent as possible. That’s Number One. And you have to make the police department accessible to people. That’s another step that you have to take. Then the police department itself has to enter into the business of education. One of the programs that we’ve had going for a while here that started under Chief (Gary) Miguel’s administration and is continuing on is this program called, “The Law and You.” We go out to the high schools, community groups, and we teach people how to properly interact with law enforcement. And in doing so, it gives them an opportunity to ask questions about why we do things the way that we do, and it helps people learn a lot more about the police department and why we do our business the way that we do it. That program has broken down a lot of barriers.

Do you get kids coming up to you and saying, “Yeah, I’d like to be an officer.”

I do. I do because I teach this program a lot myself. In fact, I probably teach it more than anyone in the police department. And when I’m done talking to the kids, the group, the large part of it, filters out, and you get four or five hanging back and they look at you, say, “Hey, how do I – you know, you told me how you got here – I’d like to give this a shot myself.”

Have you developed any kind of casual or even closer relationships with any of them?

Absolutely. All you have to do is follow me into a community center, a high school, any high school in this city, and you will hear kids calling me, “Mr. Fowler,” “Frank,” “Coach,” “Chief,” and you’ll get all those variations of the young people addressing me. They know me because I make myself available to them.

Can you think of one, like Steve Davis at Corcoran?

You know, if I start calling names, we’d be here all day. The Corcoran High School football team, I mean I know a lot of the young men. My son played on the team last year, and it’s like they were a part of my extended family. My daughter plays basketball down in the Valley, and I coached an all-girls team last year, and we played against all boys, and a lot of those young ladies are playing for Corcoran High School’s basketball team now. So there’s a lot of young people out there who I’ve formed a relationship with, and I plan to keep this relationship. I follow them from junior high school to high school, and a lot of them are off in college now.

Are any of them saying, “I want to be in law enforcement?” I guess that’s what I’m driving at.

There is a young man now who I’m hoping will go through the process, but I’d rather leave his name out of it because, obviously, we haven’t asked him for permission to use his name. But he just passed the police exam and he’s pretty excited about it. I have a letter from a young man before I became a police officer. I was a counselor at this youth placement facility, and this young man wrote me a letter. He’s now in his 30s. This is my first job when I moved here. He’s now in his 30s, and he explains in this letter how he’s followed my career and how I’ve had an influence over him. It’s a very, very interesting letter.

He’s a local person?

He’s local now. He lives in the city of Syracuse now, but before that, he grew up in a rural area. This is a white kid. He didn’t have any African-American people around him, and he points out in his letter how he had issues with prejudice with black people until he met me, and the two of us would have very lengthy conversations about life in general. He realized through those conversations how much we had in common, and he outlines in his letter how I became a role model for him, and how he utilized some of the character traits that I taught him as he’s raising his family.

So where and how did you guys first connect?

I was a counselor at Elmcrest Children’s Center before I became a police officer 20 years ago, and this young man is in his 30s.

And you just got that letter recently?

Yes. When I became chief, he was writing a letter to congratulate me, and he was kind enough to share those words with me.

How did you get interested in this career?

You know, I don’t know if I chose this profession or if this profession chose me. I took the test one day simply to see if I could pass it. And once I passed the test, I received a letter from the Syracuse Police Department, and I responded. They asked me to call and verify that I would attend a meeting, where they’re going to talk about the hiring process. And I called, to have them put me down for this meeting, and there were like three or four days prior to the meeting itself. And I thought about all the times and all the experience that I had with police officers, particularly the negative experiences that I’ve had with police officers. And I thought, “Why not me?” “Why not me?” Because I’m a believer that any effective change has to start from within. So if here’s my opportunity to become a police officer, to make sure that whatever problems I had with law enforcement, that I could do whatever was within my power to correct that and to make sure that I do things differently. Here’s my opportunity, and if I don’t try to take advantage of this opportunity when it presents itself to me, then I don’t have any reason or any right to complain. The more that I got along in the process, I realized that this is an ideal career for me.

You founded CAMP 415. Tell me about that because I think it’s important to people who may not know.

I was a detective in narcotics, and I was kind of away from the main area of the police department, and there were a lot of things that were occurring in our community and some things that were occurring with law enforcement. And I didn’t feel that the African-American officers had a voice in a lot of these things. So I recognized the importance that we needed a collective voice, and not only that, their police department wasn’t recruiting at the time, and I felt that we should have some recruitment. We weren’t represented throughout the ranks in terms of promotions, management and supervision. I felt that that needed to change. So I spoke with the person that was involved with the New York State Police Guardians Association, which is an African-American association and some people from the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives. And I quickly realized that the city of Syracuse needed an association such as that. So I sat down with myself and one other member of the Syracuse Police Department, and we started to hash out the plan to start CAMP 415.

You said you saw things that you didn’t like that were happening. Was it mainly the numbers?

Yes, the numbers were absolutely a glaring factor.

Right now, they’re like 8 percent, I think you said. They were much less than that, then?

Believe it or not, they were still hovering around 7 or 8 percent. It’s going to take awhile for us to build up this momentum.

I think you mentioned there were four people involved in this recruiting effort?

Three. A sergeant and two officers.

Are they all African-Americans?

No. The two officers are.

Are there any minority officers currently in the leadership ranks?

No. It’s me, and there’s one female sergeant.

Is that a separate problem? Part of the same problem?

I think it’s part of the same problem because in order for you to have people represented throughout the ranks of supervision, you have to have people represented, period, in the rank of police officers.

So how would you be looking to measure that?

The numbers in this case are real. It’s the numbers that are going to tell the story in this case. This will be my first opportunity as chief of police to hire, coming up in another couple of months or so. And those numbers are going to tell the story. It’s going to tell how successful our recruitment efforts are. It’s going to tell how successful our advertisement effort is, and yes, the numbers tell the story.