Columbus Public Safety Director Robert Clark Says It's Time for a More Holistic Approach to Stopping Crime
The new leader of the police and fire divisions says he’ll “lead from the front.”
Columbus’ new public safety director is taking the reins at a time of turmoil and change.
Robert Clark, who assumed the role of Columbus’ top safety official in September, says returning to the Midwest feels like coming home.
“I absolutely recognize that I am back in the Midwest where the people, just like me, want to take care of their families, neighborhoods and children,” says Clark, a Youngstown native. “I’m right back where I began, which is a great place to be.”
At the same time, Clark, who has had a distinguished national and international career in law enforcement, recognizes the challenges he faces.
Following Ned Pettus Jr.’s retirement after a 40-year tenure with the city of Columbus, Clark was appointed director of the Department of Public Safety in September 2021. Clark had been a finalist for the chief of Columbus Police Division, a job that was ultimately filled by Elaine Bryant in May 2021. Clark’s appointment is the fourth recent high-level hire within the Columbus Division of Public Safety; the turnover is occurring during one of Columbus’ most violent years on record.
During his first week on the job, two Columbus police officers were arrested on federal drug trafficking charges, accused of selling cocaine and fentanyl. “I understand the value of active, engaged, accountable, transparent and communicative collaborative leadership,” Clark says. “I intend to lead from the front. The chief [Bryant], the assistant chief [LaShanna Potts], the fire chief [Jeffrey M. Happ] and I, we intend to lead from the front. This means … being engaged in the hard conversations about trust and transparency.”
Clark began his career as a police officer in 1989 at a time when Youngstown was gripped by gang violence. The unsolved murder of his father when he was 13 fueled his interest in law enforcement.
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“Every time there’s a shooting or a murder, I feel that personally. I know what that phone call is going to be like. I know what the family is going to have to go through, the immediacy of saying goodbye,” Clark says.
In 1995, Clark served in the Los Angeles FBI field office, where he launched a program that solved 650 cold cases over six years. He also served as senior superintendent for the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service and partnered with the Los Angeles Police Department to serve more than 4,000 youths with a mentoring program.
Early in his career, Clark says, a mentor told him, “‘Robert, you can’t arrest everybody. So, you better start trying to learn how to talk to people.’”
Clark says that it’s time for law enforcement officers to evaluate a more holistic approach to stopping escalating crime. “We understand that we have to do the business of policing, but I suggest that we do old things in new ways,” Clark says. “And that’s with much more collaboration with our community.”
Outside the uniform, Clark says he hopes to make time for the same type of hands-on mentoring he once received. “I was that kid running around the neighborhood, trying to keep my Dr. J’s clean,” Clark says. “I’m just looking to get back into an environment to be with the kids and model for them what they have the opportunity to be.”
Correction: an earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of assistant police chief LaShanna Potts.
This story is from the December 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.