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COLUMN

Don't place too much 'hope' in safety director - or too little, either

York can't stop the killing, but he could make city more efficient

Tuesday, December 3, 2013 - 8:02 am

“(This) will give the city hope,” City Councilman Tom Didier gushed last week after Mayor Tom Henry announced his intention to appoint a public safety director for the first since 1999.

But false hope can be worse than no hope at all, and if the 3rd District Republican or anybody else seriously believes another layer of bureaucracy can have a real or immediate impact on the city's near-record homicide rate, na´vete may be the least of their problems.

Fortunately, the man who would fill the position does not share that affliction.

“The murder rate was never part of the discussion (before Henry approached him),” said Police Chief Rusty York, who if Council approves will become the first safety director since Payne Brown held the title under Mayor Paul Helmke. “My perception is that the (new position) may help (make the city safer), but it will be the police department that makes a difference.”

So why would the man who has led the department for 14 years and considers its work essential believe he can make things better by accepting a position that couldn't prevent the 44 homicides Allen County endured in 1997 – just one more than this year's total?

York answered that question using military terminology: As chief he mostly operates tactically, dealing with day-to-day challenges. As safety director he would think strategically, working to effectively allocate finite resources among the city's various public-safety agencies.

I would add one other difference: Unlike his predecessor, York is perhaps uniquely qualified for the safety director's job.

As I wrote during that record murder year, some critics had suspected Helmke viewed the safety director's position as his liaison to the minority community. Brown, an African American, had in fact recently become a part-time safety director so he could pursue his law degree – a decision that caused at least one Council member to suggest the job should either be full-time or not exist at all.

Whatever one thinks of reinstating the job, York will be full-time – and hardly window dressing.

“(The mayor) likes my decision-making. I'm his go-to person on public safety,” York said. “I know it's a difficult time, and I'll be looking at the big-picture issues, using the contacts I've made in 14 years (as chief).”

That's not about to prevent people from killing each other. In fact, as York and Henry have repeatedly insisted, the vast majority of this year's homicides have been gang- and drug-related – crimes that do not directly threaten the general population and are not easily deterred by police. As such, no safety director is going to singlehandedly stop the violence, or legitimately offer anybody “hope.”

Still, York insists he could accomplish things as safety director he can't do as chief. In his new role, he would supervise not only the police but also the fire department, animal control and other departments dealing with safety. He would also work with the city-county emergency communications office, managed by an independent board. Because his authority would cross jurisdictional boundaries, York said, he could assist with union negotiations, budgets and other decisions that are too often made in isolation.

“Police and fire sometimes operate in their separate silos. I can bring an objective look at their needs and strategies,” he said.

As for the new police chief, one can only hope Henry and York will base their selection on merit – not politics. “We have a short list of internal candidates, and I've done a lot of mentoring (with them) I'm 62, and had a longer tenure as chief than most. When I got the job, my training was an hour with (then-Chief) Dan Hannaford. I'll be a good resource.”

And when there is a new chief, York said he'd expect to be “in the loop” as safety director – but won't try to micromanage the department.

City Council still has to approve creation of the job, of course, and some members have questioned whether an income tax increase supposedly designed to put more officers on the street should also help create a new layer of bureaucracy. It's a legitimate point, and council members should demand a detailed explanation of the job's goals and means of evaluation before they authorize the $55,000 or so needed to add the position next year (even though York's $126,600 salary would not increase).

That extra money, York said, is a relatively small price to pay for the potential benefits. I – and no doubt some council members – remain to be convinced of that. But if we're going to have a safety director, York is the man for the job.

Just so no one expects too much – or too little.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.