Meet the Chief
Kenton Buckner was sworn in Dec. 3, 2018, as Syracuse’s new chief of police. Buckner, who turned 50 on Feb. 2, sat down with the founder of The Stand, now-retired Syracuse University professor emeritus Steve Davis, at the end of February for a nearly two-hour interview.
Buckner’s exclusive interview will be revealed over the next month in a four-part series and hits on such topics as police use of force, a new design of the department and plans to increase diversity in recruitment. In part one of this series, Buckner discusses his leadership style and first impressions of Syracuse.
Q: Do you live in the city? Was that a condition when you were hired?
A: I do live in the city. It was. I live in downtown Syracuse in an apartment.
Q: Have you had a chance to get out and get to know the city at all? Just walking around or on patrol with officers?
A: I haven’t been on patrol with the officers. I’ve had several roll calls with the officers, several intimate conversations with the officers in group-like settings for a vast majority of the divisions of the police department on a couple different occasions
Q: Have you a met a lot of “regular people” so far?
A: I think so. I’ve been to probably seven or eight churches, I’ve been to a countless number of events, I’ve been to a countless number of meetings, I’ve been on panels, I’ve been on radio, I’ve been on television, I’ve been anywhere and everywhere that a chief is probably expected to be
Q: And what about just getting out on your own?
A: I’m an outgoing introvert. I’m outgoing in that my job requires me to be very public, very personable, but in my private time I prefer a desert island
Q: But does a chief have the opportunity to make friends who aren’t work friends?
A: I’ve made several associates here. There are probably a few people I’d put in the friend category that I’ve made since I’ve been here but again, I’m kind of an introvert on my private time so that’s very limited for me
Q: Do you have a personal friend, family member, anyone that is kind of your “go to” person as a confidante?
A: I have an inner circle of probably six to eight individuals that I would describe as wise counsel.
Q: Anyone you could describe for us? Like a family member?
A: No, these are from a professional standpoint. These are not family members. These are individuals that have extensive knowledge and experience in this business and that I consider part of my inner circle.
Q: What about family?
A: I have a daughter, I have my sister that lives in Virginia, I have my mom who lives in Kentucky, my father is deceased, several family members in Kentucky and then throughout the United States.
Q: You spent what, 20 years in Louisville, Kentucky?
A: I spent 21 years in Louisville.
Q: So, what does your mom think about your latest career move?
A: She’s happy when I’m happy. She understands that moving for a chief is a part of the business. If I’m happy in New York, then she’s happy.
Q: Last mom question. Do you talk to her and about what?
A: Frequently. The same thing any son would call and talk to his mother about.
Q: I was just curious if anyone was coming to town with you.
A: Well, I’m a student that if you are an appointed official I’ve always taken the position that I keep my private life private, because I’ve found that it’s best.
Q: I know before Syracuse you’d been a candidate for the job in Charleston, South Carolina, and I think you said you withdrew because you didn’t think you’d be a finalist?
A: I didn’t think I’d get the job. I was actually a finalist. But after right about a month of not hearing anything at the completion of the process, I know enough about processes that if you’re the No. 1 guy there would have been some level of communication. I did not want to continue to have my current employer hanging in the balance waiting for a decision, so I made the decision to withdraw
Q: I thought it was an interesting city to be possibly going to, given that was where Dylann Roof killed the folks in the Methodist church and it was not long ago the city council there had apologized for the city’s role in slavery.
A: I’ll ask you a question. Are you aware of an urban community without challenges? They don’t exist. It may be apples and oranges. It may be grapes and grapefruits, but you’re going to deal with something in every urban community in the United States, and if you’re a chief and you understand this business you know what you’re signing up for.
Q: And then Syracuse came along. How did that happen? Were you actively looking to leave Little Rock?
A: I was actively open to consider opportunities. I was contacted by the search firm to say, “Would you be interested in this location?” I studied the city and its police department: It fit the profile that I prefer, being mid-size city, mid-size police department, urban community, diverse community, a flagship university. All of the challenges the city faces today, I was familiar with in my time in both Louisville and Little Rock so I felt like I would be competitive for this process.
Q: I believe you have talked about what you felt was a typical timeline for a number of years for a person to be a chief. I know you just got here …
A: It’s three to five years. (He explains that’s based on Police Executive Research Forum data.)
Q: That being said, and the kinds of mega-issues that police face that take years to solve, if ever, is that something you think community members here would be concerned about? Probably being here only three to five years?
A: I hear a thousand things from the community. I think that people want you to come to work and give them an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. I think they’d like to feel like you’re committed to both the job and the community and that you are open and honest about the business that you are doing. I believe that most people understand that chiefs don’t last forever, that this is a tough business, that there’s a reason chiefs last three to five years in most cities, that because at some point leadership needs a new voice, needs a new vision, they need a new mission, and that’s a part of change. Change is difficult for some, it’s accepted I guess more openly by others, but I think that most intelligent people understand it.
Q: Relating to diversity, in one of your TV interviews, when you left Little Rock for Syracuse, you talked about your relationship with the BPOA (Black Police Officers Association) there, and you described it as one of your biggest frustrations in your four-plus years as chief there. How so?
A: Well first, it’s been documented that I’ve never felt as if there was quote-unquote “the BPOA.” There are members of the BPOA who would basically cast stones from that banner. Many of the members of the BPOA did not agree with some of the tactics done by a handful of the board members. The frustrating part of that for me was that any and everything that’s done in the city of Little Rock somehow touches race. Whether it’s a part of the equation or not, it’s interjected, and for a guy who grew up with a very balanced group of friends and co-workers and people I associate with I’ve never really operated like that. So, it’s frustrating to me that every decision and every thing that we did, it was seen through that lens. And that becomes very taxing at some point.
Q: Were you able to talk much to Chief Fowler about his experience and some frustrations regarding diversifying the force?
A: We talked about a number of different things. I’m sure that subject came up. I don’t remember if we specifically discussed that, but he and I have talked multiple times about different things.
Q: So your dad was a police officer, right?
A: He was.
Q: How’d that influence you?
A: I had a very limited interaction, relationship with my father. But one of the few things I knew about him was that he was in law enforcement. It became an inspiration for me at a very young age, and I’ve never wavered on what I wanted to do; I never changed my major when I was in college. It was always law enforcement, and I think that’s part of the fuel that has allowed me to get to the pinnacle of my profession because I’m in the lane that I wanted to be in and things are much easier when you’re doing what you feel like you were designed to do.
Q: Did you ever have any negative interaction with the police?
A: No. In my community, we knew the police officers and the officers knew my name. If they came through because we were being rambunctious or doing something in the neighborhood or something where the police were in the area, it was always a very pleasant experience. I never remember looking at a police officer as a negative person. But you know, my lens could be somewhat biased in that I knew that’s what I wanted to be, so I may be looking at this officer totally different than one of my friends. I’ve always viewed the police in a positive light because I always wanted to be one.
Q: We have talked to people who have said they were interested in a police career, perhaps, but felt a lot of negative community pressure: “Why would you want to do that?” Did you hear that from others?
A: I did. There were people who questioned why I would want to go into this profession. Again, it’s not a very popular profession in the black community and for some they have good reason to feel the way they feel. But I certainly was asked that a number of different times, why would I choose this profession
Q: And what would you say?
A: This is what I want to do.
Q: Was that answer accepted?
A: I don’t know that I looked to them for acceptance. I’ve always been a very driven person. I’m an alpha male, I know what I like, I know what I want to do, and I was fortunate enough to do what I set out to do. I don’t know that I’ve ever had anyone who attempted to strongly impose their disagreement about my career choices.
You know, I don’t have any friends that hate the police. I may have some guy who’ll say a cop was rude to me and gave me a ticket or something but they are objective enough not to broad-brush an entire profession from an interaction with an individual. But I don’t have family or friends who despise police. That hasn’t been my story.
I don’t run into a lot of people that dislike police. I think that most people appreciate and support police and recognize the need for police. I think that that same silent majority thinks that our profession has opportunity for improvement. I think people recognize that individuals make mistakes and do things that they should be held accountable for.
Q: At one point you were interviewing for a job in Newport News, Virginia, and I read a story about a community forum where you said you had mentored a teenage boy in Louisville who’d also been raised without a father present? You were quoted as saying you were a workaholic and needed something to balance out your life, and the experience was more beneficial to you than him.
A: It was Big Brothers Big Sisters (of America). So, I became a Big Brother and participated with the young man.
Q: Can you share what that experience was like?
A: It was good. He seems to be doing well for himself today. He is a music artist today. He had some bumps in the road there his junior, senior year in school but he appeared to have gotten himself back on track. His mom’s a hard-working woman. She had two sons, both in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. He and I were connected there for the four years before I left (Louisville). It was a good relationship. I enjoyed the time with him, and it makes me feel good today to see that he’s doing OK for himself, but you know that’s due largely to the fact that he had a very strong mother who was certainly doing the best that she could to try to ensure that he and his brother stayed on the right path.
Q: So how old would he be now?
A: I would say he is probably 19, maybe 20.
Q: Do you keep in touch?
A: I keep in contact with his mother. He’s a “texter” at that age. His mom will send me stuff from time to time about what he’s doing or whatever.
Q: So, you are not a texter?
A: I text minimal. People who like to text will sometimes become frustrated with my two-word responses, but it’s my understanding texting was meant to be abbreviated communication. So, if I’m going to write you a dissertation, then why the hell are we texting?
Q: The thing with our young people and violent crime. What is going on there?
A: I think there are three primary institutions that impact the trajectory of a young person: family, education and then the clergy. In many of our challenged communities, one could argue that on a good day all three of those institutions are fractured. None more important than the household, your family, your parents; many of those households are lacking many of the essential ingredients that you would need to develop, nurture, love, provide for a young person, and our society is paying for it.
I think it’s urban America. Now you can’t even say urban anymore. If you look at the opiate crisis, many of our rural and suburban communities have been impacted. Just read the Book of Revelations. You really wouldn’t be surprised if you’d ever read that book.
Q: Faith, I take it, is important to you?
A: It’s important to me. I grew up a Baptist. I still practice a Baptist faith. I am not a person that is in church every Sunday, but I certainly subscribe to a higher being and certainly feel like I’ve had the good fortune of blessings and mercy because of that relationship.
Q: I wanted to ask you about something I read that was described as your personal professional code of conduct. Can you tell us what your personal code is?
A: When things are difficult? My job is difficult every day. I have three very jealous professional “wives”: My appointing authority, the police department and the community. And if any of the three feel like they’re not No. 1, they’re going to pull you in a direction to make you understand that you’re supposed to be over here. And a chief gets pulled in many different directions on a number of different topics, and every decision that I make impacts a significant number of people. So in order for me to survive in that environment, I have to have something that I lean on that will give me stamina in these arenas where I’m pulled in so many different directions and that has always been to focus on doing the right thing. That even if it results in you being at odds with one of those three (wives) or two of those three or all three of them, if I can look in the mirror and feel like I did the right thing based upon what I believe in my mind and my heart, and the value system that I have, I’m OK with that. I gave up being popular a long time ago. I’ve found when I focus on that (personal philosophy), that I’ve been able to survive in this profession.
If you have a faith, you know you’re going to be judged on your leadership one day. And God knows what you did under the cover of darkness. He knows what you did when no one was looking. You’re going to be judged on that one day. That’s the ultimate judge.