By Mary Spicer
For more than a decade, Eric Young’s normal work garb included a civilian shirt and tie.
These days, however, the City of Meadville’s new chief of police is back in uniform, a fashion choice he’s made for a reason.
“When I was a detective, I think I always had good relationships with the community,” Young said during his first interview with the Tribune since taking over his new job. “I get called directly — and people are still contacting me on a regular basis. That’s why I’m in uniform. I’m more visible. If I’m walking over to the courthouse, people will stop and talk to me.”
Young’s focused on keeping things simple. “I’m just a country boy who became police chief,” he said with a smile. “I like to hunt. I like the outdoors. I like fitness.”
While the recent retirements of the department’s chief and assistant chief have shuffled all the department’s top positions, there’s one thing Young wants everyone to understand: Young and Mike Tautin, his new assistant chief, are a team. “That’s what it is,” Young said during his first Tribune interview as the department’s chief. “There’s no I in team — and that’s what I want to build here.”
Other members of the department’s new management team include Det. Sgt. Mike Stefanucci, who was promoted from sergeant to replace Young; School Safety Officer Sgt. Craig Gump, who moved into the position to replace Tautin; and Det. Sgt. Ed Kightlinger, who was promoted from sergeant to replace Gump. Two sergeants remain to be selected from within the department’s current ranks and two patrol officers remain to be hired based on the results of testing currently under way.
With nine officers on the force with under six years experience and two more newbies to be hired within the next few months, Young’s in charge of a young police department. “Just because we’re a young department doesn’t mean we aren’t a proficient department,” he said. “The young guys have stepped up to their role.”
One of Young’s first tasks is mastering the intricacies of the everyday running of the police department, including properly allocating funds for purchases and repairs and, of course, managing personnel issues. Specifically, he’s been devoting significant time to staffing, which is governed by the contract instead of the needs of any particular day.
“Mike and I are pretty much working at every issue together at this point,” Young said. “I know what he’s doing, he knows what I’m doing, and we’re working together to try to get through the stuff that needs to be done.”
Once familiarity with daily tasks has been made, there are choices that also fall within the purview of the chief of police.
For example, the chief decides what color the department’s cars are going to be — but he also has to find the money to make it happen, Young explained.
When the new chief started as a policeman in 1996, he recalled, the department’s cars were a highly-visible white with green and yellow accents. Today, the cars are black with gray accents, a combination selected by Stefanucci that Young said reflected a trend in police-vehicle colors that started back around 2002. “My trend is that I want to go back to black-and-white,” he said with a smile. I don’t know if I can afford it, but I want to see if that works. That’s where I want to be — the doors and roof would be white and the rest of the car would be black.”
While the design of the department’s patch is also up to the chief, “I like the patch we have right now, which was designed by Chief Stefanucci,” Young said. “I don’t see any reason to change that.”
And the wheels go round
One thing Young would like to see change is the number of officers available for regular bicycle and foot patrol.
“I was a bicycle officer,” Young recalled. “I believe that was the best position on the police department at the time I was hired. I was a bicycle officer back in the days of the cruising around Diamond Park. I was visible.”
So was Tautin, a college student at the time who spent 15 weeks with Young on the bicycle from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. as an intern.
“I liked it,” Tautin said. “I’m a people person and I liked that you had that interaction. It was nothing to see someone on the sidewalk — they wave, you hit the brakes and you stop and talk to them. Kids loved it. I used to talk to the kids. If people had a problem, you’re very accessible.”
Accessibility, he added, was instant. “It’s easy to spin around — if I heard something, I could just spin around.”
One of the things Tautin learned back in his intern days was that even answering calls can be faster on a bike. “Half the time we’d beat the cars to the calls just because we could back alley, we could jump on the sidewalks, get around traffic. I loved it. I even liked foot patrol for the same reason. You’d be downtown. You’d meet business owners. Our problem now, though, is scheduling. We have to make sure we have enough people in the cars.”
With budget constraints having kept the department’s complement of officers at 21 — down one from the 2009 level — and two replacements yet to be hired, things have been tight.
“We have enough trouble trying to fill the schedule now,” Tautin said. “If these two officers are replaced, it will help, but we had a really, really hard time, even this summer, getting someone on the bike.”
Young tries to be a positive role model himself — and he’s trying to push a positive role for the police department.
“That’s where the bicycle guy comes in,” he said, “because how many people actually see the police — with two guys in the police car answering between 15 and 20 calls and sometimes 30 — during a day shift? How many times do you get to talk to a police officer other than him pulling you over or about an incident where someone stole something from you or something?
“If you’re on a bicycle and someone who’s talking to you forgets you’re in a uniform, they’re starting to realize that you’re still a person,” Young added. “I’m different from nobody else. When I put the uniform on, I’m attempting — and I believe this police department as a whole is attempting — to do the right thing.”
Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.