Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has nominated former St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom to be the state’s new public-safety director, a move that will put Isom in charge of a number of diverse state agencies – from the Highway Patrol to the Gaming Commission.
Isom served 24 years on the St. Louis police force, and retired as chief 18 months ago. He holds doctoral degrees in criminology and criminal justice from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where he has served as a professor for the past year.
Despite those credentials, Isom’s selection is prompting assertions that Nixon also had politics on his mind.
“I think the timing of it was politically motivated,” said state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, who will be sponsoring Isom’s nomination in the state Senate. The governor, she said, “is pandering’’ to African-American officials who are angry with him.
Isom is African American and would become the only minority in the governor’s cabinet – which has periodically come under fire for being too white and too male. Isom replaces former St. Louis County Police Chief Jerry Lee, who is white. Nixon said Lee is retiring.
Nixon also has been the target of criticism from some African Americans in the General Assembly who are angry over the governor’s action – or lack of – in the wake of the unrest in Ferguson after the Aug. 9 police shooting that killed 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Nasheed has been a leader in the effort to pressure the governor to appoint a special prosecutor in the case, and take jurisdiction away from St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch. So far, the governor has declined to do so.
“He can pander all day long and play political chess here,’’ Nasheed said. “It’s not going to work.”
That said, she emphasized that she thought Isom was a stellar choice for the state’s public-safety post. While the senator is suspicious of the governor's motives, she said his decision "is a good one."
Nixon declined at Wednesday’s news conference to discuss questions about the timing of Isom’s selection, or any link to the Ferguson unrest. The governor also declined to say when the state Highway Patrol will leave Ferguson after several weeks as the governing law-enforcement agency.
Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who is in charge of the Ferguson operation, attended the news conference where Nixon introduced Isom, but did not talk to reporters.
Speaking in general, Nixon said he was committed to having his administration’s top officials reflect the makeup of the state. According to the most recent census figures, just under 12 percent of Missouri’s population is African American.
The governor noted that he has named a number of minorities to key posts, including several judgeships.
But as for Isom, Nixon said his qualifications speak for themselves. “Dr. Isom has experience and training in law enforcement that are almost unmatched, including as a top-level manager and as a front-line officer in one of the state’s largest police forces,” Nixon said at the news conference. “We are fortunate that he will be using those skills on behalf of the department that works to protect the safety of Missourians.”
Isom said he’s motivated by his belief in the importance of good and fair law enforcement: “Protecting the public is one of the most fundamental obligations of government, and I am honored to lead the Missouri Department of Public Safety at this critical time.”