The six men and women who want to lead the 1,200 officers of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department met some of the residents they would serve Thursday night.
For the first time in department history, three of the finalists are from outside of the department. But the three internal candidates include interim chief Lawrence O’Toole, which angered some in the crowd.
“The only candidate that’s not being allowed to speak is the candidate that we the people have asked for the city to terminate,” said artist and activist Elizabeth Vega, who led a group of protesters in singing Christmas carols and talking over O’Toole whenever he spoke. “Therefore, we will stop trolling the chief when he does the right thing and excuses himself as a candidate of the process so that we can have time to listen to truly viable candidates, not just political ones.”
O’Toole has served as chief since April, when Sam Dotson abruptly retired a day after Mayor Lyda Krewson took office. Under O’Toole’s watch, the department is facing a federal civil rights investigation for the way it handled protests after the verdict in the Jason Stockley case. A federal judge has already ordered the department to make significant changes to its policing tactics.
Though the protests seemed to occasionally rattle O’Toole, he stuck around. He used his time to highlight the good things going on in the city.
“We need to leverage all those changes and come together,” he said. “The issues in our city that we need to deal with — the unemployment, the poverty, the dysfunctional families, the drugs and alcohol abuse — we have to come together to address those issues just like we came together” for a number of economic development projects.
The remaining candidates were allowed to speak mostly without interruption.
All six said they would support independent investigations of officer-involved killings, something that’s been championed by St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner. They also pledged to release information much quicker than the department currently does.
“If there’s some trust issues in our community, and an independent unit is asked for, I don’t have a problem with that,” said Patrick Melvin, currently the chief in Port Arthur, Texas. “I want to make sure that everyone is comfortable with the investigation that occurred.”
“The short answer is absolutely,” said Maj. Max Geron, a commander with the Dallas Police Department. “But the facts are the facts” when it comes to something like an officer-involved shooting, he continued, adding that an independent investigation would likely reveal the same thing as one done internally.
The six finalists also pledged zero tolerance for racism in the department.
“It starts with training,” said Norman, Oklahoma police chief Keith Humphrey. “The reason why a lot of officers react and carry on the way we do is because we don’t use our evaluation periods and our early intervention programs.”
Humphrey also pledged to emphasize de-escalation training so officers don’t put themselves in situations where they would have to use deadly force.
“And we have to stress to our officers that if you join in, and you don’t report bias, injustice, you’re just as culpable as the officer that’s doing it,” he said.
Maj. John Hayden, the commander of the SLMPD’s North Patrol division, said the time he spent as an instructor at the police academy made him the best person to bridge the racial gap within the department.
“In that period of time, we trained about 500 officers,” he said. “Many of those officers are still on the department, and many of them now hold the ranks of lieutenant and sergeant. I believe I have the largest sphere of influence to make change when it comes to race relations.”
Capt. Mary Edwards-Fears, who oversees the SLMPD’s Evidence Management and Professional Standards bureau, is the only woman among the six finalists — which she said made her the most qualified for the job.
“Meghan McCain said it best,” she said. “We need to have more women in leadership roles. That’s why I’m here.”
St. Louis public safety director Jimmie Edwards will hire the new chief, although Krewson will likely play a big role in making the decision.
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