Indianapolis public safety director target of much attention

INDIANAPOLIS, IN &#8211 Public Safety Director Frank Straub has four academic degrees on the wall of his second-floor office in the City-County Building, a picture of himself with former President Bill Clinton behind his desk and an Indianapolis Colts hat on a shelf.

But the most fitting memento probably is a white IFD firefighter’s helmet on a nearby shelf. It serves as a symbolic shield against the verbal detritus that has showered him since arriving in Indianapolis.

During a relatively quiet mayoral election season with two controversy-free major-party candidates, the moves of the blunt-talking New Yorker can spark fierce debate.

In nearly two years on the job, Straub has amassed a wide swath of critics. They include some of his own cops, political operatives, pockets of the minority community, even academics, like himself.

They have accused Straub of steamrolling underlings in IMPD, playing fast and loose with crime stats and ignoring the police union. He has a terrible temper, they say, curses during meetings and demotes people on a whim.

But largely, Straub’s been indicted for being an outsider with the audacity to suggest that the Police Department needs fixing. Even if he’s only carrying out Mayor Greg Ballard’s vision for reform, it’s Straub who most needs the helmet.

“Sure it hurts my feelings,” Straub said of the criticism, some of it rational and constructive, but much of it petty and personal. “It hurts my family, too. Some of the stuff said about me on the Internet is so ugly. . . . . It’s like nothing I’ve seen in all my years in this business. But I understand that it comes with the job.”

If critics think that means the former New York City deputy police commissioner is ready to bolt after the Nov. 8 election, they’d be mistaken. Despite the onslaught, the director said he has “grown increasingly comfortable” here and wants to stay.

“Four years, six years — I’m here for as long as it takes to finish the job if the mayor wants me,” he said.

And Ballard says he doesn’t plan on sending Straub packing if he wins re-election.

“I don’t plan on changing things if they are going in the right direction” Ballard said. “Things are going in the right direction. Changes in recruitment, training, promotion take time.”

New York ways

The public safety director in Indianapolis is arguably the second most important job in city government.

Straub oversees four large departments — police, fire, animal care and control and homeland security — and his Blackberry is often a ticker tape of tragedy

He’s paged on every homicide, fatal accident and serious calamity in the city. If it’s major, like the Indiana State Fair stage collapse, he goes to the scene.

But most of his day is spent in meetings. Straub gets daily briefings from the police and fire departments each morning, meets with chiefs of all departments once a week and reports to the mayor weekly. He appears before City-County Council committees and various public safety boards and attends neighborhood meetings.

It’s at the intradepartmental meetings, though, that Straub has sealed a reputation as demanding, dictatorial and abrasive.

A police sergeant last year secretly recorded a talk Straub gave to a recruit class. It was supposed to be a pep talk, but a lot of cops said it was more like a harangue. Straub used salty language to challenge them to be more professional and criticized the conduct of some officers who had recently gotten into trouble

One critic, Steve DeBoard, a professor at Kaplan College and a former officer with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, said at the time that Straub treated the officers like “a bunch of hicks.”

Straub didn’t back down from his words and has never denied that his East Coast sentiment — though he’s from upstate New York, not New York City — can be grating to the Midwesterner.

“This is a serious business were in, it’s life-and-death, and there is no room for error,” Straub said. “I expect people to come to work and do their jobs. I’m demanding of the people who work for me. Do I lose my temper occasionally? Yes. Do I use bad language once in a while? Yes I do.”

“That might be perceived as being a little bit aggressive, but I worked in New York for 20 years where everything is very competitive,” he said. “If you didn’t do your job right, there were 2,000 people right behind you to take your place.”

“And believe me, I’m not the only one who raises his voice or swears at these meetings.”

Patience urged

Ballard said the police reforms he wants will take years to put in place because they address IMPD’s culture and institutional identity. To quit halfway through would jeopardize the progress already made, he said.

“To become part of the culture, you begin to see those changes five, six years in,” Ballard said.

The reforms are far from complete. IMPD has begun some — better recruitment of minorities, cultural awareness training and a leadership academy — but still is reviewing policies and procedures to determine what needs updating.

Ballard cited the leadership academy as one of the department’s most effective and accepted reforms. Officers are taught to come up with creative ideas for change, rather than complain about the current leadership.

“I had one officer tell me he was thinking about leaving the department, but the academy changed his thinking and now he wants to help improve it,” Ballard said.

As more officers are exposed to them, Ballard said the resistance to the new programs and policies are lessening, which could mean a smoother ride for him and Straub in a second term. It also perhaps could lead to less sniping at Straub on the Internet and elsewhere.

But Jim White, an Indiana University-Purdue University senior lecturer in criminology, said change can’t work if the rank-and-file don’t support their leaders.

“The majority of the Indianapolis public safety community do not believe in the leadership of Straub,” in White’s assessment. “Is public safety better since his arrival on the scene? I think the response by most would be no. I see no compelling reason why he should be retained.”

The Fraternal Order of Police claims its gripe isn’t with police changes but how the administration has integrated them. The union claims Straub has not sought its input and, as a result, endorsed a Democrat, mayoral candidate Melina Kennedy, for the first time in at least 50 years.

Kennedy said she would replace Straub but has not indicated whom she would appoint. Despite her criticisms of the director, she said her qualm isn’t with Straub — it’s with the position.

“This is not a personal issue, it’s business,” she said. “It’s about the mayor truly having a leadership structure in public safety that executes well. I don’t think the structure of public safety under this mayor makes the public feel safer.”

The citizens’ views

Ballard and Straub call many of the attacks inside baseball that the public doesn’t much care about.

Away from his office, as he bike-rides on the Monon Trail or dines at an ethnic restaurant on Lafayette Road, Straub said citizens generally support what they’re trying to do.

“I have been impressed by the number of people who approach me with encouraging words about improving the department,” he said. “Not a day goes by where someone doesn’t say, ‘Keep up the good work.’ That has helped keep me going.”

But the critics also include some residents who say they haven’t seen the results of the reforms. The department’s effort at community policing are hit-or-miss, depending on the neighborhood.

“There isn’t the enthusiasm there was on the police side that there was a few years ago,” said Ed Potts, director of the Mid-North Public Safety Committee for seven years. “The commitment from the beat officers doesn’t seem to be here. Maybe it’s because the orders trickle down but the input doesn’t seem to make its way back up.”

Mike Toland, president the Kennedy-King Neighborhood Association, however, said the cops in his area are more engaged than ever.

“The police are attempting to communicate with us more,” he said. “It has been very good. I think the neighbors and the cops are feeding off each other.”

But Toland also noted that the public is aware of the internal strife.

“I think it matters to the public because it speaks to the police’s confidence in their leadership,” he said. “It could shake the public’s confidence in the police if the police have no confidence in their leaders.”

Ballard said most cops still back him, despite the FOP rebuke.

The failure to get the FOP endorsement won’t hurt his re-election chances. Fewer than 200 of the city’s 1,600 officers cast votes on the endorsement.

Phone calls to FOP President Bill Owensby for comment were not returned.

One Ballard supporter is Spencer Moore, the father of North District officer David Moore, who was fatally shot while making a traffic stop this year.

When David Moore was shot, Straub flew Spencer Moore’s wife, Jo Moore, an IMPD sergeant, home from Florida after giving her the news. Straub stuck close to the family for three days while David Moore fought for his life.

“Frank Straub is a personal friend, a compassionate, caring person who is somewhat misunderstood,” said Moore, who is a retired IMPD officer.

Police know instinctively when change is needed, he said, and he thinks many of them support it.

“The officers understand that if there is misconduct, they expect discipline, and they have seen an administration take action.”

From The Indianapolis Star.