In his youth, Syracuse’s police chief accepted that cops may shoot him — and one day they almost did
KINLOCH, Mo. — A 19-year-old Frank Fowler woke up on a summer morning in his small room in his family’s small apartment and approached a big dresser with a big mirror.
He’d been living day-by-day, facing the challenges of growing up in an urban city that’s a 20-minute drive from downtown St. Louis.
“The minute you walk out that door in the summertime and the sun hits your face, it’s like ‘What’s next?’ What’s around the corner?” Fowler says now. “And it keeps coming and coming and coming and then at night, if you’re fortunate enough to lay down at night to get some sleep, you know that tomorrow you start it all over again.”
As he approached the mirror on this morning, he saw a short black teenager with long hair and bold brown eyes. He looked into those eyes and asked himself a simple question: “What was the best thing and the worst thing that could happen to me today?”
The answer to both was the same: Die.
“I wasn’t suicidal. I didn’t have a death wish,” Fowler says now. “I didn’t want to die. But if I did die, it was over. I wouldn’t have to carry this anymore.”
Thirty-five years later, Fowler has traded the burden of urban street life for a different challenge as Syracuse’s police chief. Fowler, who is set to retire at the end of 2017, still holds those memories and experiences close to him. They’ve shaped the way he patrolled the streets of Syracuse as an officer and now in his role as the top man of a police force tasked with protecting more than 144,000 people.
“He looks at the whole community. He can relate to the people in the community,” said New York state Assemblywoman Pamela Hunter. “He’s the ‘People’s Police Officer.’”
‘Sir, I’m a Kid’
Six years before Fowler had reflected that the best thing that could happen to him was to die, he thought that indeed might happen at the hands of St. Louis police.
Fowler and some of his friends were playing stickball in the narrow parking lot of what is now the Martin Luther King Community Center in the central west end of St. Louis when “Clarence,” a teenager roughly Fowler’s age, “had to get touched” for snitching on Fowler.
The rules of the street required it, Fowler said, and so the 13-year-old punched the bigger Clarence as payback. A short time later, Clarence appeared again. This time with backup: the police.
On a visit back home this spring, Fowler said he still remembers exactly how the situation played out. He pointed out where the key players stood that very day.
A white police officer got out of the patrol car with Clarence and walked across the street to confront the group of boys, Fowler included, who remained in the parking lot. A fence separating them, the officer pointed at each boy and said “You come here.” They all played the ignorance card but when the officer got to him, Fowler knew that wouldn’t work.
Young Fowler approached the fence before the officer grabbed him by the shirt with his left hand and drew his gun with his right.
“Anything you think you shouldn’t say to a kid, he says it,” Fowler recalls.
He’d seen people die and realized that the rules of the street, the same ones that governed his retaliation when Clarence snitched, said that if you pull a gun you better use it.
Fowler’s life was before his eyes. The only words he could muster came out: “Sir, I’m a kid.” He repeated the phrase over and over again until the officer released him.
“I don’t know what he saw in me. The only thing I know is that when he pulled that gun on me, I was like ‘holy s—, I’m about to die,’” Fowler said. “There have only been a few times in my life when I thought death was imminent and that was one of them.”
Growing up in St. Louis county — most of it in the city itself — there was a negative connotation when it came to police, Fowler said. As he reluctantly turned around, fearing his friends had heard his helpless plea that day, he realized that they “were just as shook as I was.”
Fowler is able to laugh about the moment now — he’s always had the “gift of gab” — standing in the exact space where he thought he’d die. Given that a near-death experience was his first true memory of police, Fowler is still amazed that he ended up in law enforcement.
‘There’s Nothing Here’
Fowler, dressed in a gray suit with a purple tie, is driving around his gutted hometown of Kinloch when he gets a call from one of his eight older sisters.
“I’m riding around through depressing Kinloch,” he tells her. “There’s nothing here. Nothing.”
The city used to be a residential area with working-class apartments for labor workers like Fowler’s father. It’s now a ghost town in shambles with a population of a mere 299 people after losing more than 80 percent of its population between 1990 and 2000 because of an FAA noise-abatement program for the St. Louis airport.
Along a side street, wheels, brush and glass litter the middle of the road. A few churches still call Kinloch home but local business is all but gone.
“I knew it was bad but this is even worse than I thought it was,” Fowler said while driving. “This is like a foreign place to me.”
Fowler takes a right hand turn and smiles as he sees the most sacred area of his childhood: Kinloch Park.
The park is one of the few areas of the deserted city that remains the same as when Fowler used to frequent the basketball courts and baseball field. Standing at center court of the “good players” court, Fowler recounts the festivals, intense pickup games and old men gambling up in the gazebo. He tells stories of his cousin, who was shot and killed in St. Louis in a dispute over a girl, playing on the court.
When he was 16 years old, Fowler was walking to the court when a homeless man on one of the park’s two picnic tables stopped him. His question: Why did the teenagers consistently call each other n—– when they played?
“Do you think that’s a bad word?” the homeless man asked. Fowler said, “No.”
“Well what if a white person called you that?” Fowler insisted the man didn’t know what he was talking about and walked away. He got about halfway to the court when, he said, he realized the homeless man was right.
“From that day on I’ve never used that word. It hasn’t crossed my lips since that day,” Fowler said.
Much of the swearing came on the court during the pickup games. Fowler, an amateur boxer growing up, came up with a solution to defuse tensions: When players were getting into it during a game, they’d stop play to form a circle at the blue-colored center court. The trash-talking players would box in the circle.
“If you couldn’t box, you kept your mouth shut,” Fowler jokes. “You couldn’t run. You were going to catch some leather.”
One of the first acts of community policing Fowler saw was in that man-made boxing circle.
Two police officers, one white and one black, walked by the court. Police officers weren’t friendly with him when he was growing up, Fowler said.
“I grew up being black. I understood fully what that meant from an urban cultural perspective,” he said. “I’m honest with myself. I’m not going to bulls— myself. I know what all that means.”
The white officer started talking back to the players on the court when one of Fowler’s friends offered up: “If you didn’t have the badge and the gun …. ” to which the officer responded, “Well this badge and the gun come off.”
The neighborhood boys formed their routine circle in which the white officer, who turned out to be a former boxer for a local club, won the fight against one of the teens. The circle-creators went crazy in excitement.
‘Has to Start from Within’
Becoming a police officer wasn’t exactly the plan for Fowler — it was more an accident.
Shortly after looking himself in the mirror in the family apartment on what is now Rev. Dr. Earl Miller Street, Fowler realized he needed to leave his dead-end job at a rental company that rented out party supplies and hospice equipment. He was driving home from work one day when he saw an Army recruitment sign.
Fowler stopped at the local recruitment center and passed the exams, inspired after the recruiter told him he’d fail as a tactic to spur him on. Fowler saw in Army-distributed material that members of the transportation unit of the Army often ended up in Hawaii, so he joined the military. He’s still never been.
Instead, the Army took him to Europe, the Middle East and Panama, with domestic stations at Fort Dix in New Jersey and Fort Drum, an hour’s drive north from Syracuse and where he’d eventually exit the military.
He was watching television one night when he saw a non-fatal stabbing on the Syracuse news. That stabbing would have been so inconsequential it wouldn’t have made the news back home, Fowler said, so he thought the city would be a safe place to live for him and his wife, whom he met at Fort Drum.
While working in Syracuse, Fowler saw a recruitment pitch for the police department. He went to a police recruiter and filled out the form to apply as a joke for when he returned home on a visit to St. Louis, given his past experiences with cops.
But his competitive instincts took over. He got a call saying he’d passed the test — and he saw an opportunity to have an impact.
“I believe that effective change has to start from within,” Fowler said. “Whether it’s within a person or whether it’s within an institution, in order to have effective change, it has to start from within because it’s only from within that you have influence.”
On a sunny March day working as a counselor at the Elmcrest Children’s Center, he got the notification that he had been accepted into the police academy.
“A person like me becoming a police officer? How does that happen?” Fowler asked.
That same feeling came over Fowler 20 years later in 2009 when he received a phone call from Syracuse Mayor-elect Stephanie Miner. He had reapplied for his position as deputy chief of the police department’s Community Services Bureau, but the call was for a different position: chief of police.
“You messing with me?” he asked her on the phone. “I never envisioned myself being the chief of police, but sure. I can do the job.”
He jokes that he’s still surprised she chose him. Miner’s press secretary did not respond to multiple requests for an interview for this story.
‘… Do Something Different’
Suburban Avenue, a two-lane road with little traffic, connects the city of Kinloch to the city of Ferguson. Kinloch had always been the more residential area before its population dissolved, while Ferguson was the more developed town with businesses and a larger population.
As Fowler drives around Ferguson on the recent visit, he relates locations and businesses back to the shooting of Michael Brown Jr. three years ago.
Brown — an 18-year-old, unarmed black teenager — was shot six times and killed by a white police officer Aug. 9, 2014. Brown’s body remained in the street for four hours after the shooting, which took place shortly after Brown had taken cigarillos from a convenience store and assaulted a store clerk.
After the Brown shooting, thousands of community members — some from Ferguson, others from outside — crowded the streets to protest. The story made international news when the protests turned violent. Protesters threw Molotov cocktails at police, who fired tear gas and rubber bullets and brought in military-style vehicles.
A jury decided not to charge Officer Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown, in November 2014. Protests following the jury’s decision spread from Ferguson across the U.S.
Fowler, driving on Canfield Drive, the road where Brown was killed, recalls going into Syracuse Deputy Police Chief Shawn Broton’s office to tell him that things were going to “get crazy” after police officials in Ferguson revealed what they said were the facts of the case, portraying the police as innocent while still assuring an investigation into the shooting.
“I had no idea it was going to turn out like it turned out,” Fowler said.
When a Syracuse police officer shot and killed a citizen on Father’s Day of 2016, Fowler knew he’d have to react differently than the way his police peers in Ferguson had handled the Brown shooting and subsequent riots.
On Sunday, June 19, 2016, a group of more than 300 people were partying in the James Geddes housing complex when gunfire and fighting erupted. SPD officer Kelsey Francemone responded to the chaotic scene and said she saw Gary Porter, 41, fire a handgun. Francemone shot and killed Porter, and in turn was attacked by people in the crowd. An investigation did confirm Porter was armed, after many in the crowd said he was not, and tensions simmered. Francemone was cleared of wrongdoing by a grand jury in August of 2016.
After the shooting, the question hung over Syracuse: Would it be “another Ferguson?”
Fowler reacts to police shooting videos with a “here we go again” mentality. Everyone wants to have a video go viral, he said.
“If you only introduce the sensational part and leave the rest for interpretation, that’s when there’s going to be a lot of discussion generated,” he said.
Fowler tried to encourage patience until all the details of the shooting were released and waited a few days before releasing surveillance footage showing the chaotic shooting scene. He limited police presence at protests and rallies to avoid generating even more anger. Instead he had officers ready to be dispatched from headquarters if they were needed. All the protests regarding the shooting ended peacefully.
“I know how the crowd thinks. I have the luxury of thinking like the crowd and I have the luxury of thinking like the police. I know that pain. I’m very familiar with displaced anger. I know you look for the biggest target you can attack,” Fowler said. “Ferguson, Baltimore, they provided a blueprint for how you behave during these riots and it wasn’t healthy. In order for you to avoid that, you had to do something different.”
There have been challenging cases throughout Fowler’s eight years as chief and 28 with the police department. The father of three considers the case of Maddox Lawrence, a 21-month-old baby who was killed by her father in 2016, one of the toughest during his time as chief, along with the drive-by shooting that killed 20-month-old Rashaad Walker Jr. in 2010.
The challenges, though, extend beyond the cases. There are diversity problems, budget issues and high crime rates that linger.
When Fowler started as chief, he inherited a force that was 94 percent white. In SPD’s 2011 report, the department called its “greatest deficiency” its inability to recruit black officers.
“If you have a police department that’s reflective of the people they serve, the community is going to say that department truly represents them,” Fowler said.
The number of white officers today is just barely under 90 percent, according to SPD’s 2016 report, with the count of black officers at 7.1 percent.
“When you’ve lived in a neighborhood or have connections to a neighborhood, people know that. It makes a big difference to people,” Fowler said. “That doesn’t mean that you can’t do the job if you live somewhere else, I think that because you live in the community, it makes your ability to do the job that much better.”
SPD is in good shape with talent, Fowler said, but not with numbers, down 31 police officers overall. The police department’s budget has been a point of contention during city budget talks, with the Common Council approving a budget that cut $1 million from SPD’s overtime budget.
Miner and Fowler quickly came out against the approved budget, which Miner has since vetoed. Council wanted to have a new class of 31 recruits to fill the empty spots on the police roster. The department added 25 in 2016 after 36 officers retired.
“The thought of having a class of new recruits is very attractive. However, to do so at the expense of cutting our overtime budget would have a crippling effect on our current operations,” Fowler said. “Each year, the calls and the demand for police services increases. Our only way of meeting these high demands is through the use of overtime.”
Of the high crime rates in Syracuse, the one that gains the most notoriety is the number of homicides. In 2016, 31 homicides were reported in the city, up from 23 the year before. Also getting public attention: Fowler’s son, Frank Fowler Jr., 25, has been arrested multiple times, including July 2016 on felony drug charges. The charges were later reduced to misdemeanor charges.
Community Interest at Heart
When Fowler first started as a police officer in 1989, he’d get out of his patrol car and people would talk about how he didn’t know what it was like to live there. He’d laugh in their face.
“What are you laughing at?” they’d ask.
He’d look them square in the eye — “You think I don’t know what it’s like to live down here?”
They wouldn’t respond, realizing the “hood card” couldn’t be played on him.
“When I look at people in the toughest of situations, I always look at them and I think about the Bible verse that says, ‘There by the grace of God go I.’ I can easily see myself in those people’s shoes,” said Fowler, who lives in the city. “As a police officer, and even more so as the chief, to me those are the people that get special attention from me.”
He took the empathy he’d developed directly to the streets doing undercover work for eight and a half years. Those years were the best of his police career, he said.
“It was just like being back out on the streets again,” he said, but without the baggage.
“Some people say life being hard in the hood is an exaggeration. They don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s exhausting to navigate the hood each and every day and all the different dynamics that are associated with it.”
Before climbing the ladder to chief, he was promoted to sergeant and to deputy chief of the Community Services Bureau. There, he oversaw the police force’s relationship with the community.
“Every step that he’s taken with Syracuse police, right up to the rank of chief of police, he’s never forgotten that connection with the community,” said Syracuse University Chief Law Enforcement Officer Tony Callisto, who took over as the university chief of public safety when Fowler was with the Community Services Bureau. “He was ahead of his time when it comes to understanding the needs of the community and community policing, and he’s the real deal. The focus on the community is and always has been what makes Frank Fowler an outstanding police officer and police chief.”
He still carries those communication skills, frequently talking to community members who want his ear. Before boarding his flight to St. Louis for the trip home this spring, Fowler took a minute to talk to a man who recognized him. Outside one of his childhood apartments in Kinloch, he chatted up two women who worked at a church across the street. Fowler has addressed concerned SU parents, too.
Said Steve Thompson, a former police chief who now chairs the public safety committee on the Common Council: “He’s got the community interest at heart.”
Victims on the Outside
Fowler still remembers responding to the scene of a shooting as a deputy chief, shocked to see what was happening. A woman lay on the sidewalk, weeping. No one paid attention, stepping over her to continue their work.
“There are victims on the outside of the crime tape, too,” Fowler says now.
Fowler helped create the Trauma Response Team, a group of people dispatched to scenes of violent crimes, specifically shootings, to help people who aren’t direct victims of the incidents. For Fowler, seeing people grieve at the scene of a shooting hits home.
He got out of school in St. Louis one day and walked out with some friends, including “Toby,” one of his best friends with a large afro. Fowler forgot something in his locker so he ran back inside the school. He got back to the top of the steps when he heard screaming coming from the street corner and saw people standing in a circle.
“That afro was missing,” he said. “My heart just went into my throat.”
Fowler could tell, he said, that the loudest scream was coming from Toby’s sister. He pushed through the circle of teenagers to see his best friend dead on the ground “with half his face missing,” shot at point-blank with a shotgun.
“That’s St. Louis,” Fowler said.
The killing remains unsolved.
In a petite brick home in St. Louis, a large group of Fowler’s extended family gathered to welcome the chief home. Children played and danced in the backyard while inside, surrounded by family pictures, the adults caught up.
Just before supper, Fowler’s oldest brother, Willie Knox, gathered everyone inside to pray.
“We thank you for blessing the police and those who sacrifice for us and allowing them to go home and spend time with their family, Lord,” Knox said.
Pictures of Fowler hang in his brother’s house, with Fowler’s swearing-in ceremony as chief and a visit to the White House prominent among them.
“We’re all so proud of him,” Knox said.
Fowler will have more time to spend with his family after he retires at the end of this year, the end to a long career in law enforcement. He’ll have more time to watch his favorite TV show, “Blue Bloods,” a CBS show on a family of police officers. His nighttime reading — on an iPad rather than hard copy — will be more peaceful. A trip to Hawaii, something he never got with the Army, is on his retirement bucket list.
— Article by Justin Mattingly, They Wear Blue reporter