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A Youngstown native, a former city vice cop and FBI agent, now leads Columbus public safety. Meet Robert Clark

Robert Clark was 13 when his father was shot and killed in 1980, and his life changed forever. A little more than a decade later, Clark worked with the feds to dismantle the criminal element savaging Youngstown's streets in the late 20th century.

COLUMBUS — A former Youngstown cop whose law enforcement career was tempered by his own personal losses during the city’s late-20th century crime wave has now returned to his home state, in a top-level role for the City of Columbus.

Robert W. Clark, 55, was appointed director of the Columbus Department of Public Safety in September.

Clark’s 35-year policing career most recently took him to the Caribbean nation of Trinidad & Tobago, where he strategized against violent crime and improved community relations as senior superintendent of police, and before that, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Los Angeles field office, where he targeted gang-related homicides, drug cartels and crimes against children, according to the city of Columbus website.

“I’m from the inner city, from public housing, from foster care. And having those experiences really allows me to directly relate to our community. I have a servant’s heart and because of where I’m from and where I have been in my career, I have the ability and the passion to listen to the community, and understand their needs and concern,” Clark is quoted in his official biography.

Clark, a 1984 Cardinal Mooney graduate — who still attends Mass at St. Patrick’s Church along Oak Hill Avenue when he returns home — earned his Master’s degree in criminal justice administration from Youngstown State University.

While attending the police academy, Clark worked as a patrol officer for the Austintown Police Department. But his full-time policing career started in downtown Youngstown, as a vice and narcotics officer for the city’s Special Investigations Unit. He was hired at YPD in 1989, just as drug and gun violence was primed to explode in the city.

From 1991 to 2000, there were 492 homicides in Youngstown, including nearly 70 in 1995 alone, according to Vindicator archives. The annual homicide total was double the prior decade’s.

“Just like the rest of the country, Youngstown started to see the influx of crack cocaine, certainly weapons trafficking. Violence was starting to pick up,” Clark told Mahoning Matters. “Youngstown used to be the murder capital of the United States. … That was the beginning of all that.”

But before the bloody decade that initiated Clark’s career, the city’s drug trade and the street violence that followed changed Clark’s life forever.

The pursuit of justice and closure

Clark’s father, Robert Sr., operated the Casablanca Night Club along Oak Street in Youngstown. At the time, area nightclubs were hotbeds for organized crime, Clark told Mahoning Matters.

“My father got involved in a situation that involved narcotics and lost his life Jan. 15, 1980,” he said.

Clark was 13 when his father was shot and killed during a confrontation — one of nearly 30 homicides reported that year, according to Vindicator archives. Clark said he was the last person to see his father alive. He vividly remembers his exchange with the city police officer who visited his home to deliver the news.

“When I closed the door, I realized I was closing the door on my childhood — that my childhood would be very different,” he said.

The man accused of killing Clark’s father claimed he acted in self-defense and was never formally charged, Clark said. Last year, 21 WFMJ-TV reported from its archives that Robert Sr. was carrying a handgun when he was “ambushed” in the nightclub’s parking lot — but it was holstered.

Clark said his father’s death pushed him toward police work — “a life of pursuing justice for others, pursuing closure for others.”

YPD, feds crack down

After joining YPD in 1989, Clark was assigned to a yearlong undercover investigation into drug and weapons activity in the area, backed by the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Only the supervisor who signed Clark’s paychecks and a few other Youngstown officers knew about his extra work, he said.

Clark worked alongside former city police chief Robin Lees, who at the time was assigned to the FBI’s Violent Crimes Task Force and acted as the department’s liaison between the FBI and the ATF, he said.

The work culminated in a “big takedown,” including more than 20 arrests and numerous vehicle and property seizures, Clark said. Many of those targeted during that operation were people Clark had grown up with. It was a big reason he was chosen for the assignment, he said.

“This was really cutting-edge for Youngstown at that time. We never had an opportunity to put an investigation like that together. [Authorities] had done organized crime or public corruption investigations, but nothing like this,” he said. “This was really precedent-setting for the Youngstown Police Department.”

After the busts, Clark continued on with the department as a plainclothes officer on the vice beat. He later helped form the city police department’s gang intelligence unit, which identified local gang members and the specific graffiti they used and shared his experience in gang subculture with other area police departments.

“Gangs [were] something we thought lived in L.A. or maybe New York but certainly not something we thought existed in Youngstown,” Clark said. “Back then, they were calling [local gang members] ‘wannabes.’

“I explained that ‘wannabes’ are actually more dangerous. They have more to prove to themselves, to the police, to the communities in trying to control certain neighborhoods and blocks,” he said. “Established gang members and gangs just want to make money. They don’t want violence because that brings law enforcement attention.”

Clark later joined the city police department’s special interdictions team — the “jumpout boy” style of policing, he said, where plainclothes officers surveil an area in unmarked cars and “jump out” when spotting suspicious activity. At the time, authorities could charge suspected corner dealers with a misdemeanor for “loitering for engaging in drug activity,” but such charges were later deemed unconstitutional, he said.

“This was at a time where drive-by shootings became a reality for us. Carjackings became a reality for us ... 8 to 10 crack dealers on every street corner, particularly on the South Side. The chief ordered that we do something. … The violence was off the charts,” he said.

At the time, “the methodology of policing was suppression,” Clark said.

'The time to create relationships is before you need them'

By the time Clark joined the FBI in 1995, the philosophy of police work had begun shifting toward community engagement, an initiative largely led by President Bill Clinton’s administration, he said. The concept of community policing brings beat officers more in tune with the communities they serve for crime intervention, rather than suppression.

Working as FBI special agent in charge in Los Angeles, Clark assembled the Operation Save Our Streets (SOS) initiative, which solved more than 600 cold case murders and violent crimes in six years and developed new youth outreach and intervention programs “in vulnerable neighborhoods,” according to his official biography.

In 2011 he worked with the Los Angeles Police Department on a crime reduction strategy that “combined community service with crime prevention efforts.” From that, Clark formed New Point Mentoring Inc., which has helped thousands of kids develop “life-building and sustaining skills,” according to his biography.

But COVID-19 makes this kind of community-based work harder, Clark said. He said he feels the gun violence that surged in Youngstown this past year could, in part, be a manifestation of the pandemic, which slashed job opportunities, overburdened supply chains and dramatically complicated lives.

Many cities nationwide are seeing heightened violence, he said.

Public safety’s role should be strategizing with local partners on alternatives to divert people from crime or drugs, but the pandemic "shortchanged" that role, he said. "It turned off a lot of programming for a lot of communities across the country literally overnight.” 

Law enforcement’s “inability” to directly connect to youths is also at issue, Clark said. More than a year of social unrest has shown that police-community engagement is needed now more than ever, he said. Its leaders’ jobs are to “set a new tone and to change the dialogue” to change the public’s negative perception of the police.

“We also have to be willing to have the hard conversations, which is where we create the space to be held accountable for our leadership, our personnel, our strategy — everything we’re doing,” Clark said. “We have to create the process as a community. The community has to be invigorated in terms of their trust and dependency on that.

“The time to create relationships is before you need them.”

Justin Dennis

About the Author: Justin Dennis

Justin Dennis has been on the beat since 2011, covering crime, courts and public education. Dennis grew up in Poland and Salem and studied journalism and communications at Cleveland State University and University of Pittsburgh.
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