Mark R. Chaires was introduced as the city’s new police chief last week, his father’s legacy not far behind.
A 20-year-veteran, Mark Chaires follows Arthur Chaires’ 27 years on the force. Arthur Chaires was the department’s first black officer and his son is the first black chief, all in a department that has struggled to recruit minorities.
But his family’s involvement in law enforcement goes beyond that. One of Mark Chaires’ daughters is now a probation officer. A brother also wore a city police badge. He, however, was forced out of the department two decades ago with that badge tarnished.
Mark Chaires himself never envisioned growing up to be a police officer. At one point, he even wanted to be a journalist.
Now Chaires, 52, must now lead the department after 20 years on the job himself, the last seven as assistant chief.
“I have to live for my life and that’s all I can do,” Chaires said. “I can’t be concerned with ‘my father did this so I have to do this, my brother did this, my mother did this.’ Just do the job. The job’s hard enough as it is.”
And it will be a hard job. Mayor Brian U. Stratton, who made the appointment, noted that Chaires’ honeymoon will be short.
Tough work ahead
He will have the task of leading a department whose public perception has taken multiple hits in recent years.
Scandals have resulted in criminal charges against a number of officers. An FBI probe in the early part of this decade sent four to prison. Most recently, three were indicted just this month on misdemeanor charges related to department policies.
Response times and customer service issues have also lagged.
Chaires has vowed swifter punishments for officers deserving of them. He also promises better relations with the public and attempts to get more people involved in watching out for their own neighborhoods.
Police department critics had suggested that Stratton and Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett look outside the department for a new chief. Three outsiders were considered in the process.
Among the reasons Bennett and Stratton chose Chaires, they said, was his knowledge of the department and its problematic past. They also cited his roots — his father’s role and his own youth growing up in the Hamilton Hill neighborhood, a neighborhood that has declined since then.
The new chief’s mother, Dorothy Chaires, beamed Thursday as she pinned her son’s chief’s badge on his chest. She said later that she was worried she’d stick him.
She said she never thought Mark would be a police officer, let alone chief, until he entered the Air Force. He spent eight years in the service, until 1986.
She said she knows her son will do well.
“He’s going to be an honest person,” she said. “He’ll be determined to try to right everything that he can, and he’ll stick with it.”
Chaires’ father, Arthur Chaires, passed away in 2003. He served 27 years in the department and was known for walking his beat and never having to draw his gun.
In a 2001 interview, months after his son was appointed assistant chief, Arthur Chaires lit up when talking about his son.
“I think he’d be so happy,” Dorothy Chaires said last week of Arthur, “he might explode. He’d be very proud.”
Mark Chaires now lives in Scotia with his wife, Theresa. He has five daughters, all of them strong women, the chief said. Daughter Yolanda has been a probation officer with Schenectady County for about five years.
By both the mother and son’s accounts, Arthur Chaires never targeted Mark for police work. The father was good at giving advice but not nitpicking.
Even into his 20s, Chaires didn’t think of himself in law enforcement.
As a teen in the early 1970s, Chaires got involved in a program at Union College called Upward Bound. The program was for both good students and those academically challenged. “Unfortunately, I was in column B,” Chaires said, placing himself among the less academic.
It was in the Upward Bound program where Chaires got interested in journalism. But he still wasn’t focused. He turned to the discipline of the Air Force for that.
He landed in military policing, handling military working dogs and supervising dog teams and Security Police Emergency Services teams.
Bennett pointed out Chaires’ military history as being “critically important.”
Chaires’ counselor in the Union College program was Joseph Bowman; the two have stayed in touch over the years. Bowman, who is now a regent with the state, said he’s proud of what Chaires has accomplished. The two have since worked together at the Hamilton Hill Arts Center, where Bowman is involved.
He recalled Chaires often attending center events, talking with the children.
“He would talk with the kids, communicate with them and set them on the right path,” Bowman said. “He wasn’t necessarily there as law enforcement; he was there to be a friend to the kids.
“I think he’ll be excellent for the position,” Bowman said. “He cares about the community. He’ll take a stand and do what’s right for the community.”
After leaving the Air Force, Chaires signed on with the Schenectady County Jail, serving as a corrections officer there for a year.
It was around that time that his brother, A. David Chaires Jr., then a city police officer, ran into trouble. In 1987, David Chaires was accused of selling cocaine to an undercover state police officer at Yates Village. A jury convicted him of possession. There were also issues with his sick time, and he was fired. Mark Chaires noted that his brother has long since turned his life around.
Mark Chaires entered the police academy in December 1988, the month after his brother was sentenced to prison.
“To say that I came in here and that was never on my mind, I certainly can’t say that,” Chaires said.
Chaires ascended rapidly, making sergeant in 1993 and lieutenant in 1998. He was appointed assistant chief in 2001, three years later taking over the department’s Administrative Services Bureau, which includes officer discipline.
For much of the past decade, the department has seen periodic arrests of officers. An FBI investigation sent four officers to prison on drug-related offenses in the early part of the decade. Another detective went to prison after admitting to taking drug evidence for personal use, acts that went undetected until the drugs were needed at a trial.
Among the mistakes of the past, Chaires said, was not devoting enough resources to internal affairs. Hiring practices were also lax, allowing in people who never should have been hired.
Those practices have since been tightened up.
“At the end of the day, people are victims of their own bad judgment,” Chaires said. “But the organization takes a hit, too, because we could have intervened a lot quicker.”
Chaires said he intends to quicken internal discipline investigations. A perception among some is that the investigations last too long, creating a gulf between the incident and the punishment.
Some accused officers have even complained, Chaires said.
“It has to have a deterrent effect,” he said. “It has to be swift. It has got to be fair, but it has to happen quickly.”
The facts should be able to be determined and a punishment settled upon within weeks, he said, not months. He said he would never “hide behind the contract.”
The big discipline case of the past year has been over allegations by Donald Randolph. Randolph was arrested Dec. 7, 2007, accused of drunken driving. He accused officers of excessive force.
Internal affairs investigated and found merit to the claims. Within three weeks, the officers were taken off of the road and the case was handed over to prosecutors.
“Based on the evidence we know, we were convinced that something inappropriate had happened,” Chaires said. “Nothing is going to change our opinion of what we initially thought,” he added.
Then there’s relations with the union. Past chiefs have been criticized, accused of being too close to the union, becoming unable to discipline officers effectively.
Chaires said he sees parts of the contract that no longer make sense, like compensatory time, a practice that gives officers time off in exchange for overtime work. It’s a benefit, he said, that doesn’t work today.
“Now, it’s a different time; we really need all hands on deck,” he said.
An arbitrator last week gave out raises, but crucial issues of release time, seniority, health insurance remain unresolved.
“You have to come in and say, what do we want and what is it going to cost us?” he said.
Chaires’ management style has been called reserved and light on humor. Chaires described himself as shy, maybe even to a fault, the opposite of his outgoing father, though he also admitted to having more of a temper than his father.
His time in front of the City Council has rarely been given to humor, councilman Mark Blanchfield said.
“He is, above all, honest, and he can be sometimes brutally honest,” Blanchfield said. “I think those are wonderful qualities in a chief, maybe not so much a politician.”
Chaires grew up on Hamilton Hill, spending his childhood playing on Lincoln Avenue. His father patrolled the neighborhood, the same one the son would later patrol as an officer.
But the Hamilton Hill of his childhood was a different neighborhood than the one today. He recalled coming home from school one day and taking a flower from a house on Craig Street. By 5 p.m. that day, his parents knew and he was in deep trouble.
Chaires cited that as an example of a sense of community. He said he wants to help residents take stock in their neighborhoods.
When he was a community policing lieutenant, he said he held membership drives to get people involved in the Neighborhood Watch.
“It really is a very important tool,” he said, “and it helps.”
Even just watching for crime is important, he said. He wants to urge residents to be extra vigilant in the community and let police know of problems.
“The one thing is, don’t give up,” he said, “don’t give up on your neighborhoods.”