Oct 28, 2021 - News

New public safety director: 'I was truly built for this opportunity'

Headshot of public safety director Robert Clark.

Robert Clark, the new director of public safety in Columbus. Photo courtesy of the City of Columbus

Robert Clark knew his role as Columbus public safety director would be challenging.

  • It got tougher on his second day on the job, when two police officers were arrested for alleged drug trafficking.
  • The arrests reinforce his priority of restoring public trust in law enforcement, Clark tells Axios.

Why it matters: Clark's department oversees the Columbus police and fire departments. He will be closely involved with reforming local policing amid a record homicide rate and a year of social unrest.

State of play: Columbus has welcomed other new police leadership this year, including Chief Elaine Bryant and Assistant Chief LaShanna Potts.

Context: Clark, had initially applied to be police chief, but turned his attention to the public safety director opening after when Bryant was hired. as chief.

What they're saying: The director says his lengthy experience as a Youngstown police officer and FBI field office leader in Los Angeles prepared him for this late-career return to Ohio.

  • "I just felt like I was truly built for this opportunity."

The big picture: The key to police reform, Clark says, is balancing enforcement of laws while also engaging with the community in a "proactive, innovative and substantive way."

  • "We will never arrest our way out of the problems that we have in our communities."

Driving the news: Columbus is rapidly approaching a new high for homicides in a year, a grisly record set just last year.

  • The unsolved murder of Clark's father in 1980 has made his lifelong pursuit of justice not just a career goal, but a personal one.
  • Only when a case is solved, "that's when the healing begins for that family, and it doesn't begin until that happens. I know that personally."

Zoom out: Clark views crime, and homicides in particular, as being "manifestations of other social ills."

  • Whether jobs, housing, mental health or other "core issues" — police should partner with other community leaders to help address these and therefore reduce the homicide rate, he says.

The intrigue: The Columbus Division of Police should look to do "old things differently," Clark says, and be open to new ideas.

  • Clark wants to see a bigger focus on technology to engage with residents, but says . A police department podcast could be coming.
  • The Alternative Response Program, which connects residents in need with social services besides police help when appropriate, has gotten positive reviews.

What's next: The Dept. of Public Safety is planning a "massive" recruitment campaign for new police officers and firefighters, with an ongoing emphasis on diversity.

  • Clark wants to continue his involvement in local meetings to hear the needs of residents.
  • "That's where I want to be. I don't want to sit at my desk five days a week and then go home … I recognize that there's an opportunity to be involved in the community."

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