The end of state control of the St. Louis Police Department was literally centuries in the making. But St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson said the change hasn’t been obvious to city residents.
And that, he said, is a good thing.
“Local control has been a significant step for the metropolitan police department,” Dotson said. “And really, you haven’t noticed anything. It’s been seamless and transparent like it was supposed to be.”
Since Sept. 1, the city's Department of Public Safety has overseen the police department. It marked the first time that the city had "local control" over the police department since the Civil War era.
Dotson said the first full year of local control would bring big changes, including restructuring police districts and moving into the department’s new headquarters by the middle of the summer. But more than any administrative alterations, Dotson said the primary focus is on tackling crime throughout the city.
“We’ve made significant strides,” said Dotson, adding that crime has been trending downward for a number of years. “[We] still have a lot of work to do.”
For instance: Dotson said he was “very unhappy” over a rash of shootings that occurred over the weekend that left three people dead and five others injured. Dotson said that the department is using social media and web videos to prompt residents to “help us identify people in these incidents.”
“We arrest 30,000 people a year. So I think the police department does a great job working with the prosecutor in making sure those individuals are held accountable,” Dotson said. “We need the public’s help to help identify even more into the criminal justice system and then ask the courts for the right outcome.”
Disappointment over 'gun docket'
Both Dotson and St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce said they were disappointed that city judges quashed a proposal to allow two judges to handle most city crimes involving firearms. Dotson, Joyce and Mayor Francis Slay were major supporters of the so-called “gun docket” proposal.
“Gun violence throughout the nation is at epidemic levels. We want to make sure we have the right outcomes,” Dotson said. “People convicted of possession of a gun or use of a gun in a crime should have an outcome that keeps the community safe. I’m disappointed that the court here didn’t decide to do that.”
Instead the judges voted to consider an alternative proposal to make gun cases a priority in all courtrooms. Judge Robert Dierker – who was critical of the publicity campaign surrounding the gun docket -- questioned whether the proposal inhibited judicial independence.
Slay said during an appearance on the Politically Speaking podcast that he would work with state legislators this year to pass the gun docket through the General Assembly. Joyce said she hoped those efforts succeeded, adding that “we need to be doing all we can as a city to fight gun violence.”
“My hope is that we continue to move in the direction of having a specialized gun docket where we can really focus on this crime,” Joyce said. “It’s just so dangerous to everybody who lives in the city. So I’m hoping for that next year.”
'No refusal zone'
Meanwhile, Joyce and other public safety officials are stepping up efforts to crack down on drunk drivers.
Joyce joined Dotson and St. Louis Fire Chief Dennis Jenkersen on Monday to brief reporters about the city's "no refusal" policy. She says if a driver suspected of driving under the influence refuses a breath test, prosecutors will seek a warrant to draw blood.
Joyce said refusing breath tests is problematic, because “breath analysis is a very strong piece of evidence when you’re prosecuting cases.
“And so some people are able to elude prosecution,” Joyce said. “Some people who are chronic drunk drivers are able to avoid another conviction on their record that would send them to prison. And they get to continue on like ticking time bombs driving around the roadways.”
Joyce said the city’s small geographic size and the availability of electronic signatures will make the policy feasible. Judges and prosecutors would be on call 24 hours a day to obtain warrants. That, she said, will allow law enforcement officials to obtain warrants an hour and a half after a breath test refusal.
“Everything’s in place for this to happen pretty quickly after someone refuses,” she said, adding that she expected the time between a breath test refusal and obtaining a warrant to shorten over time.
Joyce also noted “a very, very high level of constitutional protections through the search warrant process.” The U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier in 2013 "that the natural metabolization of alcohol in the bloodstream" does not constitute a situation that would allow for blood to be drawn without a warrant. That decision stemmed from a case in Cape Girardeau.
“The Fourth Amendment is where the whole search warrant process comes from. It comes directly from the constitution,” said Joyce, adding that police have to fill out a probable cause affidavit for a judge. “Even if it’s 3 a.m., a judge is going to be looking individually at your case with the sole purpose to determine whether your constitutional rights are violated if they draw your blood.”
Dotson said people who drink too much are putting “all of us at risk.” And Joyce said as the policy becomes more known, she’s hoping that the message gets out that “there’s nothing to be gained by refusing a Breathalyzer.
“Because now the prosecutor has evidence that you refused a Breathalyzer and has evidence of your blood alcohol. So it gets even worse for you if you refuse a Breathalyzer,” she said. “People figure that out. And what they found is over time, most people just go with the Breathalyzer and they don’t do as many search warrants.”