Q: How many times did you win?
A: I only count the losses. And I can tell you this—I was ripped off 14 times.
Q: So you were never knocked out?
The chief, his still-fit frame packed into a gray business suit, smiled and nodded.
A: Never knocked out. Still standing. In the Army I had 38 fights and I was undefeated.
Fowler, 48, who took over the SPD earlier this year when he was appointed to the post by Mayor Stephanie Miner, is an optimist. He grew up in St. Louis during a time when a young black man did not expect a fair shake from the police. “I didn’t have a great relationship with the police as a youngster,” he remembers as a 13-year-old, a police officer called me a derogatory name, a racial term. That was no way to treat a 13-year-old child. When I was going through that I thought to myself, ‘At least I will never treat anyone that way.’” Fowler says he has learned that when life gives him lemons, he’s going to make lemonade, “and I’ve learned to make the best damned lemonade you’ve ever tasted.” Fowler joined the SPD in 1989 when he graduated from the Police Academy. He served as an undercover detective from 1991 to 2000, when he was promoted to sergeant. In 2005, Mayor Matt Driscoll appointed him deputy chief. Inside his very sparsely decorated office on the third floor of the Public Safety Building, 511 S. State St., we sat across a table for a 90-minute conversation. The chief wore a gray business suit and tie, his service revolver holstered in his belt.
Q: So how did you end up in Syracuse?
A: I first came to Syracuse in 1987. I was based in Fort Drum with the Army, and I came to Syracuse to visit, and I saw on the TV a story about a stabbing. I thought to myself that, if you live in an environment where a stabbing makes the news—sign me up! It must be a safe place.
Q: How did you come to join the SPD?
A: When I left Fort Drum, I went to work at Elmcrest (Children’s Center). I saw the police trailer downtown and I stopped in to see if I qualified. I took the test just to see if I could pass it. When I passed the test, I said, “Why not me?” I couldn’t come up with a good reason not to do it. I didn’t have a great relationship with the police growing up. I saw an opportunity to change how the police are seen. The police are viewed as strangers in the community. They come in and they take someone away. You only get one side of the story: “He didn’t do nothing.” I thought maybe I could change that. And you can only change things from the inside.
Q: How have you gone about trying to change that?
A: I teach this class called “The Law and You.” I teach it in the high schools and in churches. There’s a huge misunderstanding between the community and the police department. Police officers don’t have time to build relationships because we come in with crimes and you come in to deal with the crisis. They have to keep themselves safe. They go from call to call. Community-based policing can break down some of those barriers. Once the community understands some of our procedures, then a light comes on. Officers also have to make themselves aware of how to behave and trends in society, the things young people say and do, so that their actions are not misperceived. We have officers that work with programs that bring immigrants into the community. We give them classes on what to expect from American life, how to deal with the police.
Q: What was your reaction when you were selected as police chief?
A: My first reaction was “Wow!” The mayor and I were close from the time when she was a common councilor and I was running Camp 415 (the organization of African-American police officers). She would call me from time to time to talk about things, so I didn’t think anything of it when she called and asked me to come to meet with her. She hadn’t made me any promises or discussed anything with me about the position.
Two months ago Mayor Miner upset the Police Benevolent Association and many rank-and-file officers when she refused to sign off on an award for an officer who had been a plaintiff in a misconduct lawsuit the city lost. In retaliation, the cops boycotted the annual event at which the awards are presented, eventually holding their own ceremony. The chief, much to the delight of the rank-and-file, attended that ceremony.
Q: How is your relationship with mayor in wake of the awards controversy? It seems like that put you in a tight spot.
A: I was never in a tight spot with the mayor. She made a decision and made it crystal clear to me. Then it got played out in the media. I have a great relationship with the mayor. I have a good relationship with the union.
Q: During that whole episode, the head of the PBA, Jeffrey Piedmonte, said something to the effect that the mayor was siding with the liberal community against law enforcement. Is that an appropriate thing for a police officer to be saying?
A: Sgt. Piedmonte was making a statement as the president of the union. He’s entitled to do that. You’d have to ask him about that. He’s not speaking for the Syracuse Police Department.
Q: There are some changes coming to Internal Affairs Division (IAD)? (IAD is the unit that investigates charges of police misconduct. In the wake of several lawsuits that have gone against the department, Mayor Miner and Corporation Counsel Juanita Perez Williams have announced a review of departmental procedures.)
A: I’m not sure what those changes would be. You’d have to talk to the mayor and the corporation counsel. I’m pleased with the state of IAD. We have already made some changes there. We’ve implemented a software package, to help us see if we have patterns of behavior, to give us an early warning, so we can make necessary changes. I investigate any complaint that comes in to me from any source. There is a CRB (Citizen Review Board) that can go to and make complaints.
Q: But the CRB relies on the IAD to do their investigation. Essentially you have to have cops investigating themselves.
A: The CRB has always had IAD investigate the case for them. I have no problem with police investigating police. We are police officers, an occupation of the highest integrity. Our officers are screened, monitored, and supervised. We are capable of doing a proper investigation. If ever there is a criminal matter it goes to the District Attorney, a grand jury if need be. They move forward with a criminal process; we take internal actions.
Q: Do those internal actions become public?
A: No. It’s a personnel matter. It’s a contractual issue.
Q: You were head of Camp 415?
A: That’s right. After being a detective for a few years I realized that African American officers didn’t have a collective voice within the department. I became a police officer because I saw that there wasn’t much relationship between the community and the police. African Americans are not widely represented in the ranks. We got together to help candidates study for the civil service test, we did our own networking, we connected with other police departments elsewhere to see how they dealt with these types of issues. Members of Camp 415 have helped as mentors, volunteers, loaned our voices to different causes, participated in a number of boards. We have given out scholarships to city high school students. When I became deputy chief I decided to step down, to give someone else an opportunity to hold the leadership.
Q: You named that organization in honor of Wallie Howard, who was killed in the line of duty during a drug bust in 1990. He wore Badge No. 415. What was your relationship with Wallie?
A: I knew from the second week out of the Police Academy that I wanted to work in narcotics. When you saw those guys, you felt like a wide-eyed adolescent watching this hero walk past. There was just something, an aura about the way they carried themselves. The rest of the department kind of moved aside when they came along. Someone suggested that I speak to Wallie Howard. I had a preliminary conversation with him, and then I went away for a military assignment. When I got back I stopped at the PSB to pick up my tools and I learned that Wallie had been shot. We never got to have that conversation. Everyone knew Wallie Howard as a dedicated member of the Syracuse Police Department. He was from this community, and he chose to go the extra mile to rid this community of dangerous narcotics.
Q: You worked eight years undercover in narcotics?
A: Yes. Undercover is very difficult. It takes a special person. Wallie chose to do that in his own community. You have to be very careful. You have to take measures, and when you go to do something, you have to see if it’s practical.
Q: How does that affect you personally, living with that level of danger? A person from your demographic—this isn’t a large community.
A: My eight years in narcotics—I slept like a baby. I still miss it to this day.
Q: Why is that?
A: Working in narcotics is special. The camaraderie among narcotics detectives is like nothing else. You know that what you’re doing is going to put in jail a person who is poisoning the community. When you take down a major player, that is really rewarding as a police officer.
Q: What if we just allowed the drugs to be sold legally?
A: I have no view on that. Right now I haven’t given it any thought. I just know that it’s against Section 220 of the New York state Penal Law. I worked undercover. I saw the devastating effects—parents leaving their children alone—it’s very tough to see the negative effects on our community.
Q: What would your job be like if you didn’t have to spend your time dealing with drug-related crimes?
A: If it were not for gun violence and drugs, I would be concentrating on the quality-of-life issues that sometimes go overlooked. Quality-of-life crimes go on the back burner when you have to deal with these other issues, but those are the things that affect most of the people in the community. There’s the obnoxious neighbor, the loud music, the barking dog—these things affect most of us.
Q: What’s happening with heroin in this town?
A: I can tell you this: It’s out there.
Q: Has the return of heroin been a factor in the recent spate of shootings, mostly on the West Side?
A: I can’t tell you that it’s more heroin, but I can say this. The drug that’s called water, which is a mixture of PCP—when there are multiple gunshots fired—that is frequently a factor.
Q: The shooters are high on water?
A: That’s right.
Q: What’s been done differently since you’ve been in charge?
A: The way we deploy our resources is a little different. At our crime analysis center we analyze the trends and statistics. We have a weekly operations meeting, and we try to send resources to where the problem is. The front-runner in everything is gun violence, and violence in general.
Q: People say, “I need my gun to defend myself.” How many times have you been in a situation where a civilian has saved his or her life with a gun?
A: You don’t hear about that too often. That’s not really in my experience. Maybe in some of the rural communities, but not here in the city of Syracuse.
Q: You’ve been involved with campaigns for microstamping gun barrels, things like that. There have been amnesties in the past for guns, and other strategies. What ideas do you have to stop the problem with guns?
A: To find the people who are possessing those guns, lock them up, and hope that the judges give them very long terms for possessing those guns. I think that would be a very effective strategy.
Q: Are you comfortable with what the judges are doing?
A: It’s not that I’m uncomfortable, but we need to come up with strategies to make it very unattractive for them to be possessing those guns.
Q: Here’s a question a lot of people have: When we see police officers talking on their cell phones, are those department-issued phones or personal phones?
A: Those are personal cell phones, but our officers often use them for police business.
Q: So why do we see officers driving and holding the phone to their ear? If we do that we get stopped, because it’s not safe. . .
A: Because police officers are exempt from vehicle and traffic safety laws while they are on duty. They have very good reasons why they’re not wearing hands-free devices.
Q: So do we: The hands-free devices often don’t work as well.
A: One reason is that when the officer has to get out of the vehicle they have to get that equipment out of the way. They are responsible for a lot of equipment, and sometimes it’s not practical or comfortable to have to remove that piece of equipment.
(At this point the chief took his tiny Bluetooth device, set it on the table, and smiled.) I lead by example. I always keep my Bluetooth in my pocket.
Q: What do you need most from the public?
A: I need cooperation. Be diligent—watch out for one another. Usually the police are not there when the crime is committed. We need those extra sets of eyes out there. When you see something, come forward. Let those who commit crimes be the ones made to feel uncomfortable.