The Rochester Police Department will announce today that Fred Bell is being appointed the new deputy chief of operations.
It is a risky, outside-the-box move that will do much to determine the course of the department over the first years of the Lovely Warren administration.
Typically, the DCO – as the position is often known – labors in public obscurity, essentially running the department behind the scenes for the far-more-visible chief. It is a position best filled by the most qualified, respected and energetic of commanders.
Bob Duffy – who went on to become chief, mayor and lieutenant governor – spent six years as DCO. The last DCO – Mike Wood – was a wildly talented officer. Unfortunately, he was a victim of the purge that came with the new mayoral administration. His boss – Chief James Sheppard – was pushed out because the new mayor’s team feared his popularity and potential electability.
Sheppard’s deputy chief of administration – Mike Ciminelli – was a holdover who so impressed the mayor that she made him her chief.
And today he is going to make Fred Bell his DCO.
In terms of emotion, I’m thrilled.
In terms of logic, I’m uncertain.
Because Freddy Bell – as I’ve always known him – is an old man. He may be 70. He swore on to the Rochester Police Department in 1967. That’s 47 years ago. He has been retired for almost a decade and has spent a good chunk of the intervening years literally on the beach on a tropical island.
He’s not coming out of retirement, he’s coming out of another world.
But he’s expected to be sworn in Monday and take hands-on, around-the-clock command of the cops on the street. He’s supposed to teach them, mentor them, discipline them, inspire them, command them.
While schmoozing residents and activists across the city, putting forward a charm offensive meant to break down the “police-community divide” that some people can’t stop talking about.
It’s a mighty tall order.
But if anybody can do it, it’s Freddy Bell.
In my early days as a reporter in Rochester, Capt. Freddy Bell was one of the larger-than-life section commanders who seemed to know and be known by everyone. One of the first black officers on the Rochester department, he was also one of the first high-ranking black officers, and that meant a lot to a lot of people.
But Freddy Bell wasn’t skin color, he was personality. He had a cool and a charisma, a mixture of flair and gravity, a distinctive smile and a way of winning people over. And people trusted him. Good people, bad people, they knew he was a man of substance. When folks had a problem, they went to Captain Bell. When they needed something done, they went to Captain Bell.
And over and over I heard about people who were getting advice or encouragement or having doors opened for them by Freddy Bell. He seemed like a good guy who was well liked if not downright loved.
But those were different days.
Cops are meeker now, and Freddy Bell had a bit of a strut. He was a man in the way men were defined back then, tough and confident, with a touch of ego. He came up in a department with a different culture, he saw some bad stuff go down. It will be challenging for him to engage and lead officers who were in junior high when he hung up his uniform. He may have to introduce himself to a city that doesn’t really remember him. The neighborhood folks who almost adored him have been, at least in part, replaced by people who will not be as embracing. He may be a little uncomfortable with political hangers on who are far from his equal.
Logically, I can think of a variety of reasons why he could be a bad choice for deputy chief of operations.
But emotionally, it’s a different thing. I miss the old days and I miss some of the old cops, maybe this one more than most. This guy has a career that commands respect, and maybe he still has the abilities that made that career successful.
If the mayor wants drug dealers off corners, and she wants neighbors to feel comfortable with the police, Freddy Bell might be a perfect fit.
It depends on his stamina. It depends on his ability to rekindle friendships and make new friendships. It depends on his ability to connect with and inspire officers who realistically could be his grandchildren.
The odds are against him.
But I’m betting on this horse.
This is a gutsy assignment that says something about the chief who suggested it, the mayor who approved it, and the old man who accepted it.
I don’t know if it will work, but I sure want it to.
Freddy Bell is back in uniform, and that feels good to me.