Q&A with Police Chief Fowler

The new Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler sat down for more than an hour with
The Stand’s founder for a discussion that focused on recruitment of minority officers for the city police force.
This is the first of two parts of an edited transcript of their discussion.

I had read that the number of minority officers on the Syracuse force was about 10 percent of 500?
It’s a little less than 8 percent. When you talk about minorities, you have to define the term. If by minorities you mean Latinos and African-Americans, we’re at close to 10 percent. But if you break that down into two different groups, Latinos are 2 percent and African-Americans are just shy of about 8 percent. Our authorized strength is 506 but we’re not at 506 right now. We’re less than that. The officers that we have altogether, with the ones that are in the police academy now, and the ones that are actually on the job, we currently have about 480.

I think the census numbers for the city would show that it’s about 25 percent African-American, and the overall minority numbers probably around 35 percent, so would it be reasonable to say that the police force should be one-third minority?
I think that’s very reasonable for anyone looking at the police department to expect those kinds of numbers. The police department should be reflective of the areas they police. That’s not the case as it relates to the city of Syracuse. We’re working on it. You currently have a mayor who is very committed to diversity.

So how do you think you get from where we are now — about 8 percent — to 25 percent, which would be about 125, basically triple the number of African-American officers that you have now?
Well, we have a very thorough, aggressive recruiting staff, and we’re working real hard to increase those numbers. It’s very difficult. It’s a very difficult challenge to recruit minorities to become police officers because you first look at the dangers. This is a very dangerous job, and it’s becoming increasingly more dangerous and when you turn on News10Now or any of the other news channels, you see the city of Syracuse, and you see the crime, and for the type of person that we’re looking for, we’re looking for smart, educated — to some degree physically fit people — who have a pretty good background in terms of work history, criminal involvement — little or not any criminal involvement — and guess what? This is the same person that every other employer is looking for and they are not asking you to get shot at. They’re going to pay you a comparable salary, and they’re looking for the same type of person that we’re looking for but you don’t have to worry about getting shot at. That makes it very challenging for us.

You said, chief, that you had an aggressive program. Could you tell me a little bit about that, what you are doing to recruit minority officers?
We have a recruitment staff made up of one sergeant and two police officers, and their job is to go out and look for minority candidates. We have a full-service recruitment staff, but we have an emphasis on minority candidates. So we go where we think our target audience is going to be at — colleges, universities, job fairs, workshops, community events, where we think people are, that’s where we’re going to go. We just started an advertisement campaign probably a year ago or a little less than a year ago during the time period where the police exams are offered. We use the TV, radio, billboards and bus advertisements to attract our target audience. We’ve had some success in those areas.

Could you provide a little detail about that success?
Our numbers go from people that we contact who express an interest to those people who actually show up to take the police exam.

So out of every 100 who say they are interested …
Sixty percent show up to take the exam, and out of the 60 percent who show up to take the exam, about 40 percent of those people pass the exam. And out of those that pass the exam, about 75 percent to 80 percent fail the physical agility test that’s required. So that’s what makes the numbers so tough.

How many of these are minorities and how have the numbers increased?
I think you’re probably looking at for a testing cycle (of an increase) from about 80 (minority applicants) — those that expressed an interest — to three times that much.

And that is over the first year of this program?
Yes. And then those numbers dropped off as I just described to you earlier.

That’s 250 minority applicants alone?
Those are minority applicants. Our overall numbers are somewhere around 1,500-1,600 for that time period.

Are those primarily Syracuse residents, Onondaga County residents, the three-county area around Central New York?
No, they’re not. Right on our Web site you can fill out what we refer to as a contact sheet where you let our recruitment staff know that you have an interest in becoming a city of Syracuse police officer. People use that a lot. We get 10, 12 hits a day on the Internet, people expressing an interest in becoming a police officer, and you don’t have to be a resident of the state of New York to take the police exam. At the time of your appointment, you have to be in Onondaga County or an adjoining county in order to get hired.

I know I’m asking for numbers you wouldn’t have hard and fast, but out of those 250 or so minority applicants in particular, are most of those local?
I would say about 50 percent are local. When you say local, we’d have to extend that to Onondaga County.

Do you attribute most of that to your new program?
Yes, absolutely. I attribute it to our recruitment staff and the fact that they now have the ability to advertise the fact that we are recruiting.

How much time do they spend out in the community recruiting? If I’m working a five-day week, am I out there half the time?
Sixty percent of the time they’re out there, but they also have to check the Web site and draw down the information from that. It’s going to require someone to be in the office; when they leave the office for four hours, when they come back the voicemail box is full with people that are calling in because we established a relationship with them, and they have a question. Their e-mail box is full because people are e-mailing them with questions, or new contacts will e-mail them.

This might sound simplistic, but why is it so important to have more minority officers on the force than you have now? Some people would say, perhaps, “Well, we just need good police officers, that’s what we need.” Could you talk about that from your perspective, especially having been a police officer for a long time?
I would first off agree with the fact that we need good, professional police officers. That’s what the Syracuse Police Department needs. But when you look at the community, we serve the people of our community. And when you want the community to look at the police department and have a measure of trust, they quickly look for someone, a face that they can identify with. And when you look at certain types of problems that officers respond to, an officer with a certain type of background would be able to have some type of insight, a measure of empathy for that situation. And not only that, when you have police officers interacting with their peers from different cultural backgrounds, those police officers’ views — their understanding of that particular culture — is broadened on almost a daily basis. So that just makes for a great environment, a great learning environment for the police officers and a great opportunity for them to broaden their cultural awareness and their ethical awareness.

How often did you, as an officer and a detective, come across situations you would see where having more minority officers would have made a difference in police work?
I seldom saw that on the side of the police officers because there is always the willingness to want to learn, to know, to get involved, to resolve an issue. But on the other end, where the community was concerned, people in the community were quick to say, “Hey, you don’t understand, you don’t understand me,” and officers may make an innocent mistake when they’re having a conversation with someone, and they would take it personal, and the officer didn’t mean it that way. So I didn’t see it so much on the officers’ side because the willingness was there, the training was there, the professionalism was there. But on behalf of the citizens, there was a lack of trust, a lack of willingness to be accepting of the police officer.

How did that manifest itself? Was it just the way people talked to each other?
I think you have a number of things there. You have history. Let’s not forget history. And you have life experience that people bring to the table. Couple that with the fact that a police officer is coming into an environment where the person they are dealing with has suffered some type of emotional, physical, psychological trauma. So a police officer walks into this volatile situation, and citizens have these displaced emotions, and here comes this police officer, and citizens are looking for someone to blame, and they’re looking for some place to dump this stuff that they’re feeling onto someone. Here comes the police officer in uniform, and (the citizens) are looking for the police officer to now become a sounding board. And if the police officer doesn’t respond back with some type of empathy, then that police officer now is insensitive. They may be as professional as they come, but they’re insensitive, they don’t know my plight. That’s why it’s kind of important to have people from various backgrounds involved in situations like that.

Can you think of an example from your personal experience as an officer yourself?
Well, yes, there was a time when this young police officer entered the home of an African-American lady, and he started to make comments about how the house was kept. The house was in disarray. Now he wasn’t there to hear the beginning part of the story, where the lady was explaining to me and to another gentleman there how she’s calling about her daughter’s boyfriend, who has become physically abusive toward her daughter and how she’s taking care of her daughter, her daughter’s children, and this young man is the father of these children. He’s doing absolutely nothing, not supporting them financially, and the daughter is not doing anything to contribute to the household, not even doing so much as cleaning up the household.
So now this mother is taking up the slack for all that. She’s chosen to work two jobs, and in the meantime, she has to try to do whatever she can and take care of her grandchildren. She has to make a choice whether the house gets cleaned. She has to make a choice whether she takes the plate to the kitchen or she plops down on the chair and takes a power nap before she has to get up and work another eight-hour job. So these are life choices that she has to make. And this young man enters the house, and he makes a comment about the fact that the house is in disarray, and she proceeds to educate him on how life is for her.
And I stood back and I said, “Wow.” I’m sure that young man learned a very valuable lesson that day. But that’s just it. You don’t know everyone’s story. We’re going to find people in different stations in life and different conditions we’re going to walk into, and everyone has a story to tell. If you’re familiar with the plight of that particular group of people, then some of this stuff is going to be almost self-explanatory to you. But if you’re not, if you’re from a different cultural background, this is not going to be self-explanatory to you. It’s going to be almost inexcusable to you, and you’re going to wonder, “Hey, why are things the way that they are?”

So, did you see a lot of that?
I didn’t see a lot of that. I saw a fair share of that, but I didn’t see a lot of that, and it comes with the young officers. The veteran officers learn how to communicate with people. They build relationships with people, and they’re very good at that.

In your current batch of hopefuls now, how many are at the academy and how many are minorities?
I think there’s 19, and none are African-Americans. I think we may have an Asian. But that was the previous administration, that group. And, trust me, they — or, we, because I was a deputy chief under that administration —we did the best that we could to find minority candidates. We will find good minority candidates. But along the way, we won’t compromise our standards. We were faced with a very unique situation the last time we went to hire. We just couldn’t find any African-American candidates for that class. But the class that we’re about to hire for now, we have a great group of candidates to choose from, so I’m very impressed and very optimistic with how this class is going to look.

You were talking about the next group that you’re recruiting, which would be the next group through the police academy. You just expressed optimism that there would be more than zero. What are you hoping for?

See, if I give you an answer as the chief of police, it won’t be a guess. I can throw an answer out there that someone could call me on later on, so … I’ll say it’s going to be a lot better than it was the last time around.