St. Louis Metropolitan Police
5:02 am
Thu January 3, 2013

Entrance Interview: New SLMPD Chief Dotson On Crime, Local Control, More

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department officially has a new chief.

Sam Dotson has been with the department since Oct. 1993, including time as the chief of staff to the Board of Police Commissioners, and as an aide to Mayor Francis Slay.

Dotson takes the helm of the 1,300-person department at a time of great change. But he says his first priority will always be reducing crime.

"We're going to end 2012 with crime being down just under 13 percent. That's a significant decrease, and the decreases have been happening year over year," he said.

It's also about making people feel safe, Dotson says. The department has to communicate what it's doing, why it's doing it, and whether it's successful. 

"During a 30-day period this summer and fall, we reduced homicides, aggravated assaults, and robberies by 68 percent because of our targeted strategies. That's a great success story."

"During a 30-day period this summer and fall, we reduced homicides, aggravated assaults,  and robberies by 68 percent because of our targeted strategies. That's a great success story. Those are the types of things that we have to tell people that we're doing. And as they hear that, they know their police department is working, they know that they're having results, and hopefully they feel safer and more comfortable traveling about the city."

What does hotspot policing look like to you?

I want to embed it into the culture of the police department. That's 21st century policing. It's not just a neighborhood. It could be just one block, or a couple of blocks. Since I was announced as chief, I've met with the three unions and told them they all have a seat at the table. We can't come up with crime reduction strategies if we're bickering. I'm open to taking input on what will make it better.

On cooperation:

We have a great relationship with the FBI. Criminals don't recognize borders, so we have to partner, especially with the county. I'd start with small units, work out the bugs, and then see what the county's appetite is for it.

Changes in the department:

I want to continue and expand many of the good things that former chief Dan Isom has done. The neighborhood ownership model needs to be expanded. We'll target individual criminals, let them know we're watching, and hopefully deter them.

We have a chance to reinvent the police department. Right now, we have nine districts, which made sense 20 years ago. Six districts is a better idea. It puts more officers under the command of a captain and allow their own targeting. Through attrition, the command ranks will shrink, and we can reinvest that back into the department. And the labor groups will all be at the table.

We're also bringing back the rank of major. It gives us a chance to start training some of our new leaders.

On local control:

I've spent the last two weeks going to the stations to reassure the officers that local control is a good thing. There was a lot of misinformation during the campaign, and officers became concerned about their pensions. This is not about their pensions. We also won't tolerate political interference, but I wanted to clarify what "interference" was - it's when they ask you to treat someone differently than someone else, not asking you for help with a problem on their block.

"I've spent the last two weeks going to the stations to reassure the officers that local control is a good thing."

Local control gives us a louder voice at the table. The mayor will be solely responsible for the police department, rather than just one vote on the Board of Police Commissioners, and he answers to the voters. We have a really good relationship with the board, and I think we'll have that same relationship with City Hall.

I think the officers are buying in. They'll have to see it to believe it. As we combine some city and department services, save some money, reinvest it into the department, I think they'll see it.

On relationships:

A good relationship is a good place to start. It's not just with City Hall, it's also with prosecutor Jennifer Joyce, and helping judges understand some of the struggles we have in the neighborhoods. We all want the same thing - to reduce crime in the city.

Civilian review boards?

The taxpayers entrust us with $173 million to run the department, and that comes with responsibility. Officers should not fear this - most of the time, the reviews support the officers.

"Civilian review has a place in the department. But it also is not an opportunity to try the officers in public. What it is is to make sure that the department is operating with integrity and as ethically as possible."

"Civilian review has a place in the department. But it also is not an opportunity to try the officers in public."

I want to create an environment when an honest mistake becomes a learning opportunity. We ask them to put their lives on the line everyday, and we have to make sure they know we support them and aren't being an armchair quarterback. But we'll also punish something that is illegal, immoral or unethical as harshly as we can.

What about changes to pensions?

(During his time at City Hall, Dotson was among the lead voices pushing for changes to the pension system for firefighters.)

Conversations about pensions are not money grabs. It's about being fiscally responsible and keeping the system solvent. There have been zero conversations about taking over the police pensions. The Police Retirement System has a package they will push forward that makes significant changes for new hires, and some modest changes for active employees around contribution rates. 

On arming officers in schools:

In a 90-minute meeting with representatives from the St. Louis Public Schools, the Archdiocese of St. Louis, and city charter schools, no one mentioned more guns as the solution. They asked instead for help securing their buildings, training what to do if there is an active shooter, and for better communication with the department. 

What role will technology play?

Technology is a force multiplier. The smarter we can be, the better we can use our resources to fight crime. GPS is great for tracking stolen laptops, cell phones and iPads. It's better equipment in cars. The trick is finding funding.

On using social media:

I'm going to look for any way we can communicate. Society has shifted to cyber-communication, and we've noticed it in our officers. The older guys like to get out of the car and talk to people. But the younger officers, they're texting and tweeting and getting on Facebook, and we have to teach them to have those conversations. It's not a bad thing - it's harnessing different skills. But it's tough in 140 characters.

What is the biggest challenge he faces?

It's helping officers understand that local control is a good thing. If we reduce crime, help people feel safer, the conversations about budgets, cars, equipment, whatever, get easier, because we're doing our job.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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