Retiring Schenectady Police Chief Mark Chaires always thought twice about any major decisions.
On Saturday afternoon, his disheveled and nearly empty second-floor office in the department headquarters on Liberty Street indicated no second guessing about the decision to end his four-year tenure as chief.
“People would laugh, but as stubborn and driven as I can seem sometimes, I don’t think there are many people who second guess themselves more than me,” he said during a break from paperwork and packing the final personal items in his office. He is to leave that officially today.
“I think what gave me the most confidence when I first took this job [in 2008] was knowing what I had in this organization,” Chaires said. “I knew the personnel I had to work with and I understood law enforcement.”
He succeeded Chief Michael N. Geraci Sr. and was appointed by Mayor Brian U. Stratton, who chose among five candidates.
Chaires’ focus was on crime reduction, the department’s core mission, when he was elevated from assistant chief to the top spot; he didn’t plan on staying for more than five years. He started with the department in 1988, following his father, Arthur Chaires, the city’s first black police officer.
Becoming a relatively young chief, Chaires, now 57, said it was initially a bit of a surprise to learn how decisions were really made. There wasn’t the total authority he had anticipated.
He quickly adapted to the structure and came to rely on his subordinates, a practice that became easier as he gained more confidence in the job. “I was very fortunate to be able to hand things off,” Chaires said. “As a chief you can’t do anything by yourself.”
His command structure was essential to implementing what he said were two of the department’s major successes: a reorganization with a focus on supervision and creating a case management system. The supervision, created by the restructuring, ensured that officers, especially young or struggling officers, received the guidance and support to potentially thrive in the department. The case management system, which was the first formal one of its kind in the department, allowed for assignments to be evenly doled out and to track the status of investigations.
He was also pleased with the way the department came to rely more on statistical data for its police work and a renewed emphasis on “customer service.”
Chaires argued that the department is heading in a positive direction and feels like more could have been accomplished under his watch if resources hadn’t been so tight in the city. “We’ve been short-staffed over the last couple of years,” he said, noting a rash of retirements and budget cuts.
The staffing issues have made it harder to focus on community policing, as the significant volume of calls for help have to come first. “It’s tough to do a foot patrol,” he said, “if you’re going to get called off it for a hot call.”
As for regrets — he termed himself a “hothead” — he said he wished he had chosen his words more carefully in public a few times when he was upset and had been more organized in his daily scheduling.
His hardest decisions were always when to fire or discipline someone. Chaires actively tried to weed out the “handful of bad apples” in the department, but said it was always very difficult to take away a job in the department, which he described as “heck of a job” because of the health benefits and pension.
Looking back at the terminations under his watch, he said it was a mix of people who weren’t cut out for policing or were simply good cops that made one bad mistake that couldn’t be forgiven.
Under his tenure the department arrested or disciplined several officers for off-duty acts, like drunken driving, and on-duty acts, including moonlighting at a second job on police time.
In the next chapter of his life, Chaires hopes to slow down, but not by much.
He will soon be completing his doctorate in criminal justice from the University at Albany, plans on spending more time with his family and five grandchildren and will almost immediately become the executive director of the Hamilton Hill Arts Center. After the center, where he plans on serving in an interim capacity, Chaires is hoping to use his doctorate to teach college courses.
The arts center title was not something he had planned on, even though he has been a board member for a handful of years and has ties that stretch back to his teens. After leaving high school he got a part-time job teaching filmmaking, at which he was only slightly better than his pupils. Later on his daughters were involved at the center.
“It was a nice safe haven and an oasis for kids to stay out of trouble,” he said of his memories of the center as a teen and then as a young parent.
In taking over the center, Chaires is planning to tinker with its core mission. The new focus will be on visual arts, music, dance and English language arts.
The center and youth programs supported by the police department, like Pop Warner football and a tennis program, are key ways, he said, to stop crime. Chaires is hoping the center will be more than just a crime deterrent, though, as he said a focus on English language arts might help elevate the chronically low scores in the city school district.
An announcement on Chaires’ successor is expected early in 2013, according to a previous interview with city Mayor Gary McCarthy. He will be choosing from assistant chiefs Brian Kilcullen, Patrick Leguire or Michael Seber, with the decision potentially depending on who will move into the city.
Chaires hasn’t publicly endorsed any candidates, instead noting that this pick is the mayor’s. He is encouraged by the decision to choose his replacement from within the department.
Whoever the replacement is, Chaires said they’ll be inheriting a department that is loaded with talent, but will have the same struggle for resources that he had.