SCHENECTADY — Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett, who spent close to 50 years working in law enforcement, died of cancer Tuesday morning.
He was 71.
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Family and colleagues remembered Bennett as a man of integrity and strength who cared for the people around him and helped stabilize the city and its law enforcement agencies during his decade at the helm of the city's police and fire departments.
“He was very personable. He was someone who was very easy to like and talk to,” Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford said. “But at the same time, if you did something you weren’t supposed to, he held you accountable. For that reason, I think we’re better off than before he came.”
Bennett was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, and initial treatment indicated good results, according to a memo sent Thursday to city staffers by Mayor Gary McCarthy. However, further testing last week showed the cancer had spread, McCarthy told staffers.
Kate Bennett, one of Wayne’s three daughters, described her father as “a man’s man” who doted over his children and three grandchildren. She recalled how he took his kids out fishing, taught them to drive and attended musical performances and school events.
“He loved to make sure I knew where I was going, including telling me where I should park if I was meeting him out for a meal,” Kate Bennett said. “He also insisted on giving me gas money. I’m 43, and he did so in May.”
Wayne Bennett with his three daughters and granddaughter Emma. (Courtesy Kate Bennett)
Wayne often bragged about his daughters, Kate said, and enjoyed spending time with his granddaughters. He’d even sit down with Kate’s daughter to play with Barbie dolls, she said.
“My dad was very much a person who believed in doing what’s right simply because it’s the right thing to do,” Kate said.
Bennett served in the New York State Police for 38 years, holding all but three titles in the State Police Uniform Force and Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
He became the agency’s 12th superintendent in July 2003, and led the state police during the high-profile 2006 search for Bucky Phillips, an escaped prisoner who shot three troopers, killing one.
Bennett retired from the state police in February 2007, but within a few months was back in a public safety role. Then-Mayor Brian U. Stratton recruited him to serve as Schenectady’s public safety commissioner to oversee the city’s police and fire departments.
Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford addresses members of the media with Fire Chief Raymond Senecal in the wake of Bennett's death. (Peter R. Barber)
Bennett was tasked with reining in a police department wracked by scandal. In the decade that followed, he provided stability and a no-nonsense attitude, officials said.
“From the beginning, he was the kind of person who would command respect,” Clifford said. “And from a subordinate level, you felt bad if you disappointed him.”
Bennett was a hands-on and visible force within the city, frequently visiting crime and fire scenes, speaking with local media and appearing at most City Council meetings.
He was a leading force in deploying resources to flooded areas in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, McCarthy said, and he was instrumental in investigations following a Paige Street house explosion and the Jay Street fire.
“A more results-oriented police department, higher standards and better internal control,” the mayor said when asked to describe Bennett’s lasting influence. “He was always a stabilizing force, always setting standards and guidance that I think made everyone’s job easier.”
On Tuesday, the flag outside the Schenectady Police Department’s headquarters on Liberty Street was lowered to half-staff in Bennett’s honor.
Seeing Bennett at the scene of a fire or other emergency was always reassuring, said Fire Chief Raymond Senecal, who spoke with Bennett almost every day. The late commissioner was a confident, firm and fair person who skillfully handled the many aspects of an administrative public safety job, Senecal said.
“There are a lot of things we do where there is no playbook for it,” Senecal said. “The lessons he taught me when I was a young chief, I’ll use those lessons and hopefully carry on his legacy through some of the things he’s taught me.”
Bennett was named deputy mayor in 2014 and would sit in for McCarthy periodically at City Council meetings.
City Council President Leesa Perazzo associated Bennett with integrity, fairness and consistency, she said. She recalled an instance during a council meeting when a situation became potentially unsafe, and Bennett stepped in for her protection and deescalated things.
“He was just ingrained in the fabric of the city,” Perazzo said. “Commissioner Bennett came up through the ranks, so he knew what our officers and first responders faced. He was there not only to lead, but to support. He will be deeply missed.”