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Leaders Remember Schenectady Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett

Dave Lucas

Services will begin this afternoon to honor former Schenectady Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett, who died earlier this week at age 71 after a battle with cancer. WAMC’s Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard reports Bennett, who also served as a State Police Superintendent, is being remembered as a man who fought to restore the integrity of Schenectady’s police force.

Wayne Bennett retired after 38 years with the New York State Police in 2007. Soon after, he was hired by the City of Schenectady to become the next Commissioner of Public Safety.

The man who led the state police in the search for notorious escaped murderer Ralph “Bucky” Phillips in 2006 was tasked with reforming the Schenectady Police Department in the aftermath of a scandal that included the arrest and resignation of several officers.

Upon being sworn into office in September 2016, Police Chief Eric Clifford praised Bennett for his leadership in transforming the city.

“We’ve had many improvements under the last nine years under Commissioner Wayne Bennett. My challenge is going to be to all officers is, ‘How do we get better? How do we get better at doing what we’re already doing right now?’”

Bennett set out to reform city practices and procedures. He worked alongside former Mayor Brian Stratton and current Mayor Gary McCarthy, with whom he also served as Deputy Mayor.  

Daily Gazette Editior Judy Patrick said that while there have always been great police, there’s been noticeable change in the city.

“Today, Schenectady’s police department, you don’t hear about bad things in Schenectady very often at all. We don’t write those stories anymore – not because we’re ignoring them, but because they aren’t happening,” said Patrick.

As Public Safety Commissioner, Bennett also oversaw the city fire department. Fire Chief Ray Senecal remembered the commissioner as a “fair but firm leader” with five decades of experience.

“As example, there’s not a lot of agencies that have chief officers that have somebody that they can talk to that  have more experience than they do. For instance, I have nearly 30 years in this business, and I’m able to talk with an individual  who has almost 50 years. That’s not very common so we appreciated that experience and leadership in the city.”

Senecal recounted high-profile incidents that benefited from Bennett’s experience in coordinating communication between city fire and police, including the deadly Jay Street fire that destroyed apartment buildings across from City Hall in 2015.

City Council President Leesa Perazzo recalled Bennett’s professionalism and dedication to the job, but said her fondest memory of the man was his encouragement of new hires and first responders.

“He was so encouraging to our recruits because he knew they were gonna have quite a challenge in front of them. And he was so supportive to our first responders because he knew that they lived every single day with challenges,” said Perazzo. “And Commissioner Bennett came to the city at a very troubled time and through his steady, consistent, integrity filled leadership that really changed.”

Albany County District Attorney David Soares, heard here on WAMC’s Vox Pop program, remembered speaking with Bennett, who was then State Police Superintendent, when Soares was new on the job.

“And I remember just as being very new in office and having to deal with some pretty heavy, heavy cases. And when you pick up the phone and you’re calling for assistance from the New York State Police and a man of a stature of Mr. Bennett comes walking through the door, it does provide you with a sense of relief,” said Soares. “And he’s always gave me the feeling that, ‘If I’m here, we’re gonna be in it together.’”

Services for Bennett will be held Friday from 4 to 8 p.m. at the State Police Academy at 1220 Washington Avenue, Building 24 in Albany, and on Saturday at St. Mary’s Church at 10 Lodge Street, also in Albany.

An obituary is available online here:http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/dailygazette/obituary.aspx?n=wayne-e-bennett&pid=186401575

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.
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