A Storied Career as a Crime Fighter
American Police Beat Featured Article: Written by Cynthia Brown
Kevin Clark had a meteoric rise up through the ranks of the NYPD. He was known throughout the Department as a gutsy street cop and innovative manager who had the respect of both his peers and the people who worked under him. His strong managerial skills, fierce competitiveness and a work ethic that drives him to excel in everything he does, put him early on to the fast track to success.
Clark was also a disciplined student who could spend ten hours straight studying for a promotional exam. He worked some of the toughest beats in the NYPD – Special Operations, Internal Affairs, the Narcotics Unit, and several precincts including the 25th Precinct in East Harlem and the 47th Precinct in the Bronx – high crime areas overrun with drugs, guns and violence. He scored high on every promotional exam rising to the rank of Captain after just 15 years on the job. When he was recruited by Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley to be that city’s top cop, he had risen to the rank of Deputy Chief and was the Executive Officer of the Organized Crime Control Bureau’s Narcotics Division.
Even if they wear white shirts, gold braids on their hats or tailored suits, some bosses’ hearts are still on the street. That certainly describes Kevin Clark. Even when he was an Inspector in charge of an entire precinct in our nation’s largest city, he would patrol the streets with the cops who reported to him. The stories about Lieutenant and Captain Clark, rolling around on the street trying to disarm a man with a gun or chasing a suspect on foot are legion. He “walked the walk” as they say. When he was assigned to the 25th Precinct in East Harlem he saw first-hand a community ravaged by crack cocaine and heroin, and under the threat of violent drug gangs.
“The precinct was on 119th Street,” Clark recalled. “We covered a small area but there were a lot of drug related problems. Crack was out of control.” It was during his time in the 2-5 that Kevin came to the view that most crime is related to underworld of narcotics trafficking. “My belief is firm that the nexus of all crime and quality of life issues has to do with illegal narcotics”. “As far as I’m concerned, the evidence is overwhelming”. Where there are drug dealers, there are guns. Right down the street from the dealers you’ll find the prostitutes, street gamblers, stick up men, open alcohol consumption and junkies. There’s shootings and stabbings when one dealer tries to rip off another one or somebody just steps on someone else’s foot because they drank to many 40’s or lost their bank roll in a sidewalk crap game. Then there are the retaliation crimes that follow.
When it comes to crime fighting strategies, Clark is a big fan of Bill Bratton, Jack Maples and the NYCPD’s institution ofComp stat. “Examining crime statistics at weekly meetings and then making commanders responsible for coming up with a plan to reduce and eliminate the problem in the future was such a breakthrough,” he says. “The program forced us to be proactive instead of reactive. It gave us real creative freedom and ultimately full responsibility for fighting crime. Comp stat enabled us up to go out and do real police work based on factual real time intelligence.” He is also a big believer in delegating. As the commanding officer of his precinct and then as commissioner in Baltimore, he made it his business to read every officer’s activity reports.
He did the math and got the averages that quickly revealed who was working and was just showing up collecting a check. “I had the stats on everyone,” he said. “I knew who was working and who was not but I never dealt directly with the officer.” He put the pressure where it belonged – on the sergeants and lieutenants. “I would have weekly supervisory meetings with each platoons supervisors. I would tell them this data shows what you Sergeant or Lieutenant, not your squad or platoon is doing for this community. Now you’re the leader of your team of police officers and know what needs to get done to suppress crime on your tour of duty because you’re supposed to know what the issues are now make a plan, own it, execute, follow- up on its’ effectiveness and revise it if the need arises. . Clark believes that first the new boss should come in hard like a military drill sergeant.
“Nice guy to tough guy doesn’t work,” he says. “It has to be the other way around.” If he saw a pattern – that the people who were slacking off had the same sergeant – he knew he had a supervision problem. He summoned the sergeant for a meeting. “I’d sit him down and tell him or her that the ten people who report to you don’t seem to understand your plan and how to accomplish your crime and quality of life reduction goals. I’d give the boss a chance to turn it around quickly.” If things didn’t improve, he’d call the sergeant in again, tell the person they failed and why and then transfer them to another squad or shift. “Most times this caused major disruption in their lives,” Clark noted.
“But I wasn’t concerned with their new found anxiety. They weren’t doing the job they get paid to do, they wanted to be everyone’s friend or some type of ado union representative, not the boss. The good thing about this approach was the word would spread the sergeant was put on a different shift and suddenly the other sergeants and lieutenants in the precinct got a lot more productive because they didn’t want a different schedule or have to move to a different precinct. It didn’t take long after that for the cops to jump when their supervisor told them to jump. But I never dealt with the individual police officer other than to let them know they were doing a good job. I would tell the sergeant or lieutenant to motivate their people and get the results I want. Not surprisingly it worked every time although it didn’t make me popular with the slackers boss or cop and guess what it never bothered me because if you think everyone is going to like you than your living in a dream world. I would always tell the new bosses” if you gave everyone who works for you a fifty dollar bill someone in the group is always going to say why is mine wrinkled”. “It takes a long time to become a good effective cop,” Clark explains. “I would say six or seven years – a longer time than medical school. It takes that long to calm down and drop the it’s’ us against them syndrome, develop sympathy for people and learn to develop meaningful relationships with people in the community. “Developing empathy and sympathy at the same time you’re out suppressing the criminal element is not easy,” he says. “It’s easy to get into the mindset of it’s us against them. That’s a world view very common for cops. “When I was a young cop, I remember the paranoia was so bad, I was even uncomfortable in a restaurant if I was in uniform. I thought someone out in the kitchen would hear there were cops eating there and do something to our food. I felt more comfortable buying what was already made.” Another thing Clark believes in is brainstorming – something that can be a foreign notion in the paramilitary structure of a law enforcement agency. He also realized the higher the rank, the more it was necessary to give the people below you on the totem pole access. “The higher up you go,” he says, a lot of people develop along the lines of the big mouth small ears theory of management. You have to trust people around you, empower them to do their jobs and see that it motivates them and secures operational success, small or large.”
Lyndon Johnson once said, “I’d rather have my enemy inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in.” Kevin Clarkhas been a longtime proponent that you gain power by making alliances with your enemies. Long before it was an accepted practice, Clark was turning heads with his novel approach of making friends with adversaries, especially adversaries of the police. “He was an innovator,” said one captain who worked with Clark. “He brought everyone on board.” Whether it was politicians, churches, community activists, schools, public works, sanitation, and even the Al Sharpton’s of the neighborhood, he made sure they all had a seat at the table.
“I paid them a visit. I gave them my direct phone number. I told them I needed them on my team.”We all wanted the same thing a safe community for our families and respect for one another. Law enforcement people are conservative by nature and Clark’s different way of doing business made some people nervous. Although he was criticized at first, slowly his colleagues came to realize his plan to get adversaries of the police a seat at the table was a stroke of genius. Today, commanders are encouraged to form these kinds of alliances – it’s even part of the NYPD’s “Best Practices Manual” – but back when Kevin Clark was blazing the trail many people considered it foolish even subversive. Years later Kevin laughs about the reaction to his unorthodox way of doing things.
“They could call me a sellout or whatever else they wanted, but the truth was when someone died in police custody or anything else that had the community up in arms, I had a network. I had everyone’s phone number and I called every one of them up.”I grew up in the very neighborhoods I had the responsibility to protect and I knew the players good and bad. Cops spent more of their alert time at work then they do at home off duty so why not make it work, the safer the neighborhood the safer you are. And contrary to what is mostly reported the public supports their police officers openly and silently. Kevin sat at his desk and made his calls, “I explained the situation,” he said.
“This cut off the rumors from the agitators because they were hearing it directly from me, whether the news was good or bad from the department’s standpoint. They were plugged in and they trusted me because I was bluntly honest with the facts I had at the moment. I told them if one of our guys did something wrong, we would deal with it. The community was not afraid of us because they had access to voice their concerns and get some action no matter who they were to those who managed the precinct. I made sure the police were part of the neighborhood.”
It was a strategy that landed Clark the NYPD’s prestigious “Unit Citation” two separate times for having the best performing, innovative command out of all the department’s 76 precincts. His most significant role models over the course of his career have always been people who had the confidence to surround themselves with smart people. “A career in law enforcement can make some commanders paranoid,” he explains. “And that does not lead to effective leadership. You’ve got to have confidence, and you can’t be threatened by people who are smarter than you are.
Some organizations are afraid to bring in outsiders, but I always wanted the best person I could get. Who cares where they’re from? All I care about is who is going to do the job better.” He served as deputy chief of the NYPD’s 2,400 member Narcotics Unit where he was in charge of polity development, technology, investigation management and coordination of inter-agency operations with the DBI, DEA, Customs and a number of state and local agencies. His track record at Narcotics was so outstanding the Mayor of Baltimore personally recruited him to take the job as that city’s top cop, in hopes he could make a dent in the out of control drug problem plaguing so many of Baltimore’s neighborhoods.
While his tenure in Baltimore was short, his two years there was marked by incredible success including a 20 percent drop in crime and implementation of pre-emptive problem solving practices that reduced 911 calls by 11 percent, a drop that saved the city $2.3 million dollars. Kevin is blunt when asked if he is happy he became a cop. “I had a perfect life as a cop,” he said.
“Anything you could dream about happening during a career in law enforcement happened to me. I can’t imagine I could have had it better.”