LONSBERRY: Chief Buckner and His Cops

Kenton Buckner is a good man.

And the Syracuse Police Department is an institution of giants.

And yet they are at loggerheads, a new chief and an old department, crossed up and in conflict after just three months.

This is a call for a reset. For people who have dedicated their lives to public service to back down from disagreement and find a way forward.

Here’s the background.

Chief Promises To Build Trust With Officers
Chief Promises To Build Trust With Officers
Chief Buckner sits down with Bob Lonsberry to talk about some of the recent bumps in the road of transition at the Syracuse Police Department.

A year ago, Syracuse got a new mayor, with the promise of a new police chief. The old chief, Frank Fowler, was a cop’s cop. He was loved by everybody in uniform. He was a Syracuse policeman through and through. And though the mayor kept him on for a year, it was just for transition, while the deputy mayor conducted a national search.

Which is where the situation gets unique. The deputy mayor, whose background is comprised mostly of working in anti-poverty non-profits, runs the city’s day-to-day operations and was charged with finding and supervising the police chief.

She found Kenton Buckner, who had been chief in Little Rock, Arkansas.

A 25-year veteran of law enforcement, he was charged with diversifying the Syracuse Police Department, cutting back on overtime, and reducing the city’s record violence.

And before the holidays, he was sworn in.

By St. Patrick’s Day, his officers and their union were in open revolt. At the massive parade, in which the entirety of the department typically marches to the cheers of the people, it was the chief and the color guard and a couple of flunkies. His deputy chiefs didn’t even march with him.

And that was in the context of a newspaper story which told everyone, before the parade, that he was marching alone because the cops didn’t like him.

It was, and was intended to be, a public humiliation for the chief.

Why?

Well, according to the union president, because he seems distant, and is felt by some of the officers to be disrespectful to them. Also, he said things in interviews which the officers took as accusing some of them of corruption or malingering. There were also petty observations about he didn’t say hello to somebody in an elevator, and on a scene once asked young female officers if they were getting ready to take the sergeant’s test while not asking the same question of more-senior male officers nearby.

There is also the issue of the chief not yet being a certified New York police officer. His certification in other states does not apply here, and though he can serve a year as chief without the New York certification, he will have to take some recruit training – and pass tests, certify on his weapon and meet physical fitness standards. Though this is not a unique situation for a chief coming in from out of state, it has been part of a whispering campaign that Buckner – whose entire adult life has been in law enforcement – isn’t a real cop.

Buckner has decided to train alongside the next Syracuse Police Department recruit class. Good can come from that, though he will need to be evaluated on tests and standards by outside non-SPD graders, so that his subordinates are not put in the awkward position of grading their boss.

For his part, Kenton Buckner says that he wishes he had said and done some things differently, that he respects the department and its officers, and he has high regard for their professionalism. He also says he was brought in to do a job, and that he has a boss and a public he has to answer to. He is also an introvert. He can do the public thing, but in his own time and space, he is quiet and likes to be by himself.

And he’s not Frank Fowler.

The old chief was everyone’s friend and hero. The new chief is the guy who’s not the old chief.

And that takes some getting used to.

And some professionalism.

Because the new chief is still the chief. And in a paramilitary organization where men and women are under orders and part of a rank structure, it’s top-down leadership, not bottom-up. And, yes, it is important for the leader in such a situation to foster a good relationship with subordinates, but it is the duty of the subordinates to comply with and adapt to the wishes and personality of the leader. In the emergency services, it’s important to know who’s the boss. And Kenton Buckner is the boss of the Syracuse Police Department.

Unfortunately, in the conflict, there has been a circling of the racial wagons. With Buckner and the deputy mayor being black, and the union president – and most of his membership – being white, it is no surprise that the Al Sharpton Nation Action Network has weighed in on the side of the chief and the deputy mayor, and been critical of the officers and their union.

That’s no good.

None of this is any good.

So here’s my take.

Nobody wants to watch mom and dad fight, and nobody wants to see this conflict. The mayor needs to sit the chief and the union president down – maybe over some Dinosaur BBQ lunch – and make peace.

The chief – who is extremely busy and being pulled in every direction – needs to show the line officers more love. He needs to ride with them and glad hand them and bring donuts to roll call. He needs to show them and tell them that he loves them.

The officers and their union need to remember that the chief is the chief, and that they need to adapt to him and his leadership style. They also need to give him a chance, and recognize that he, like everyone, has his own personality. They must also remember that he is the instrument of City Hall’s will, and that he was sent by the department’s civilian overseers to achieve some specific goals.

At the end of the day, they all – chief and officers alike – take a check to do a job, and that job requires them to work together. So that’s what they must do. Respect and affection can come in time, but unity of purpose and command must be the case now and always.

Personally, I love the officers and believe in the chief. He can do the job. And the people of Syracuse need the job done. Two years past the most violent year in the city’s history, and coming off months of horrible juvenile violence, this is a city in public-safety crisis. And the black-and-whites have got to come to the rescue. And that can only happen when the chief and the officers bring their best all day, every day.

There is no room for a dispute, no oxygen can be wasted on that.

There are no bad guys in this dispute. The chief can do better at showing his love and respect for his officers, and his officers can do better at showing their respect and obedience to their chief. But they’re all big boys and girls, and while the wrinkles iron out, they’ve got to keep their business private and show Syracuse that it’s one team and one fight.

And one commitment, to policing and protecting the people of Syracuse.

This is the work of the angels, and anything that detracts from that is wrong.

Bob Lonsberry

Bob Lonsberry

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