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Sam Dotson prepares to reinvent city-police relations

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 15, 2012 - Sam Dotson, named Friday by the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners to be the city’s 34th police chief, effective Jan. 1, sat down on Saturday with The Beacon to answer a series of questions. Dotson, at 43, becomes one of the youngest chiefs in the department’s history, and he will guide it in the transition from being under state control to city control, which will take effect next summer.

For the past 20 months, Dotson has been on loan from the police department as Mayor Francis Slay’s director of operations, while retaining his captain’s rank in the department. He has a two-year contract as chief, at a salary of $127,000 a year, with three one-year options by the mayor for continuing on.

Q: What do you see as your biggest challenge ahead?

Dotson: The first thing is crime and the perception of crime. We have to continue to make sure that everything we’re doing is focused on making crime go down. (Outgoing chief) Dan Isom has done an outstanding job and I have to be able to continue that. We have to focus on hot-spot policing and the homicide deterrent initiative. I am a big proponent of putting officers in uniform and putting officers in the neighborhoods. …

The merger with the city, that’s going to be a big challenge for us … it’s also an exciting time. We’re going to get one chance to reinvent the place, and we’ve got to make sure that we do it right. By that I mean, it’s not about jobs but finding a structure that works and makes us efficient, in the way we deliver our services, the way we fight crime and the way that we spend our money.

I believe we have to find a way to give our officers more money, to increase their salaries. We can identify some savings through city efficiency, by merging the city and the police department. I have to give the Police Retirement System, the (St. Louis) Police Officers Association, the Ethical Society (an organization of African-American police officers) and the Leadership group (an organization of St. Louis police officers holding the rank of sergeant or higher) credit and we’ve talked about changes to the police retirement system. Legislation will be introduced that makes modest changes to the system, mostly for new hires, which will help the sustainability of the system. I think that’s important.

Q: What about department morale?

Dotson: We have to talk about morale. Hopefully, by finding ways to get additional money, that will improve morale. ... discipline is part of any profession, whether you work for Boeing, Monsanto or the Police Department. Employees do things wrong occasionally, and we need discipline. I’m a proponent of making those teachable moments. We can do things punitively to punish officers but if you’ve made a mistake the department has a responsibility to sit down and say, “Hey, you did that wrong. Why did you do that wrong?” and try to understand it so we can better train, better educate and better equip our officers.

I’m not talking about a situation where an officer has done something illegal or something way, way out of bounds. I’m talking about some of the infractions that we have. Make those a learning experience, and if the officer has made a mistake, there may be other officers who made that same mistake and let’s try to teach our officers to be better and to help them be better and not to punish them for honest, genuine mistakes…

The last year, with the conversation about local control has really put a stress on the department and it’s the fear of the unknown. I feel, coming from my experience as director of operations, I have a pretty good perspective on what city operations look like … Public safety, the fire department, the building division, streets reported to me. … There is nothing that the officers should be afraid of regarding local control; and if we can get through that over the next six months I think that will help morale tremendously.

It’s always the fear of the unknown. They’re worried about jobs; they’re worried about benefits; they’re worried about salaries; they’re worried about a variety of things that I understand because of the change, but they shouldn’t be worried. The ballot initiative protects jobs, protects the residency rule, protects health care, protects their pension. … It’s that fear of political influence in the police department: If I’ve got a problem in my neighborhood, that’s not political influence; telling someone not to arrest my brother – that’s political influence.

Q: Do you propose any immediate significant changes in the operation of the department?

Dotson: Absolutely. I’m working on a couple of things. … I’ve already started conversations with the police board about looking at a new structure for the police department, about districts, about the way the command staff is structured; and by the end of the year, I hope to have plans to the police board and their support to make some structural changes in the department. …

Everything is on the table, and that’s what is so exciting about this time. The way we do business is on the table right now. As long as we’re doing our core mission, as long as we’re reducing crime in the city, as long as we’re helping people feel safe, let’s make the police department the best that we can …

The Police Board, really I think, sent a message by going to somebody that’s got 18 years of experience, that’s 43, not somebody at the end of their career in retirement mode. Hey, I have to be successful at this job because in three or four or five or seven years or whenever I’m done with it I have to have another career. I won’t be ready to retire. So, they really said, “Hey, Sam Dotson, we think you’re young, we think you’re energetic so go out and show us.” And so they wanted to send a message to the department, “Hey, be creative. Be the best that you can. Make changes. We will support you.”

Q: Do you anticipate much political pressure from City Hall?

Dotson: That’s a good question and no, I don’t. And here’s why:

I think the police officers are afraid that all of a sudden now the aldermen will interject in their daily activities. If an alderman calls and says I’m having a problem in whatever block of whatever street and we don’t respond, that’s not being realistic. It’s a partnership. If an alderman calls and says I’m having a problem on my block … that’s not political interference. That’s what’s supposed to happen.

Interference is when, “Hey, don’t give my brother or sister or cousin a ticket.” That’s not going to happen. That is the type of behavior that I expect the officer to tell that person, “I can’t do that,” and they (the officers) have to know that there won’t be repercussions, that that is the right thing to do and I want to know about it because I want that political person to know that they were way out of bounds and that’s not what the police department does.

We have to have a reputation of being fair and consistent, not only about the way we treat people but about the way we treat people across the city. So we’re going to police south St. Louis the same way we police north St. Louis, the same way we police the Central West End. The officers have to know they’re not going to have to put up with political pressure to do their jobs. Political pressure isn’t saying, “Hey, I’ve got a problem in my neighborhood, come and fix it.” Political pressure is saying, “Hey, I want you to treat somebody differently.” I will not allow that to happen.

Q: There will be more oversight now with city control. How well do you get along with (Public Safety Director) Eddie Roth (whom Dotson will report to)?

Dotson: We get along very well, and what is interesting is that our positions are going to flip. Right now Eddie reports to me, as director of operations, and as police chief I’ll report to Eddie. We have a wonderful relationship. I think he is incredibly insightful because he was a past president of the police board. So he understands the challenges the department has and he understands the challenges of the officers.… He’ll be great to work with.

Q: How would you describe your management style – are you a hands-on guy or will you delegate a lot of your authority, and do you consider yourself more book-smart or street-smart?

Dotson: Yes to all of those. As far as my management style goes, I want to be involved and I want to know what’s going on. That doesn’t mean I’m going to make every decision. What it means is that I’m going to tell the command staff what the expectations are, what I expect the results to be – crime to go down, people to feel safer – and as long as they’re working toward that end and they’re making decisions toward that end, they’ll continue to make those decisions. But if they’re not, then I’m going to be involved and say that’s not the way I want the department to be managed and the way the citizens of St. Louis want the department to be managed.

So, I’m very interested, very engaged to tell everyone in the department what the expectations are, and then if they achieve those expectations they’ll have a little more autonomy to make those decisions and if not, then I’m going to get involved. I have no problem delegating, but ultimately the responsibility for the management of the police department and the responsibility for the safety of the citizens of the city lies with the chief, and I take that very seriously. If they’re (police commanders) not hitting the pitching, then we’re going to make some changes. Having said that, I expect everybody to be able to do their job well …

The answer to being more book smart or street smart is both. Let me explain.

Eighteen years in the police department, you can’t be promoted to sergeant, to lieutenant, to captain without having street experience. So I’m probably a little sensitive around people who say I don’t have street experience. I commanded a district; I was a police officer in a district; I was a detective; so I’ve had a variety of assignments throughout the department so I have the street experience. But I also have an MBA in management. ...

I made a conscious decision that I understand the police side of it because I do it, I lived it, I’ve done it for 18 years. I also want to have an understanding of the business side of it because we’re a $173 million enterprise and the majority of that are people. So you have to understand health care benefits, you have to understand pension benefits, you have to understand firing, hiring, recruitment, purchasing, IT issues. ... I think I’m a combination of both.

Q: Do you believe police misconduct is adequately investigated, and what is the best way to ensure accountability to the public?

Dotson: We do a good job of investigating complaints that are brought to us. What I believe we can do better is sharing the results of those investigations, and I don’t mean giving the officer’s name. … I do like the idea of the police board now as the reviewer of the discipline that happens. I believe they do a good job.

There’s always room for improvement, and one of the things I’m going to do, which is maybe slightly different than some of the previous chiefs, is that I see a more cooperative relationship with the police officers association, the ethical society and the leadership group. When we have patterns of misconduct, shooting issues, or verbal or physical abuse issues, I plan to sit down with those groups and say, “What can you do to help make this not a problem for us?” I think getting their cooperation and getting their buy-in really sets a new tone, and it goes back to what I said about discipline – I don’t want to do discipline for the sake of discipline. I want to do discipline to change the behaviors, not just of the individual but of others in the department.

I think we have a responsibility to investigate every complaint that’s brought to us, a responsibility to do it well and thoroughly, but I also think we have a responsibility to work with our employees....

Q: How do you feel about citizen or outside agency review of disciplinary matters?

Dotson: We have a responsibility to the community, we really do. They entrust us with their safety and they entrust us with their tax dollars, so we have a responsibility to be as open and as forthcoming and as transparent as we can. What does that mean?

That means that when we do investigations of our officers I do not have a problem with those being reviewed. We’re not the only police department around the country that’s struggling with this issue … so I looked around at models that I thought were progressive and were met well by the community and met well by the officers. I like the model where the complaint can be taken by internal affairs or a citizens review board and then investigated by internal affairs and then reviewed by a citizens panel.

That review is not to say whether the officer did or didn’t do it, but the review is to say if the investigation is thorough, if the investigator asked the right questions, or if they didn’t ask the right questions the panel can say, “Hey, why didn’t you ask that question?” It then goes back to internal affairs, internal affairs asks those questions and the review panel at some point says it’s a complete, thorough investigation and it comes back to the department for discipline. …

I will sit down with the police officers association, the ethical society and the leadership group and tell them that civilian review is a reality, just like local control became a reality. The community will have a voice in that process as well. … We will structure that in a way where everybody will have input and everybody will feel comfortable with it.

Q: Do you plan to rely heavily on academic research, such as proposals and studies by the criminology department at UMSL, where Isom is going?

Dotson: I think there’s a place for that. In reading the literature from around the country, there are several cities that have relationships with universities like we do with UMSL. I think anything that makes a department better is something we should do, and again, hot-spot policing seems to be working very, very well. If we tried something that didn’t have results we’d move on and try something else.

What UMSL brings are two things – they bring credibility and a validation to the strategy, saying this is the best practice, this is being done around the country; and the other thing that they bring is empirical data. ...We know how to go out and prevent crime and lock up people and make people feel safer but we’re not academics and we don’t know how to do statistical analysis as well as a university would. So they can look at the data and say, “Your strategy worked,” or, “Your strategy worked half the time,” or “Your strategy didn’t work,” and then as managers we make decisions on what the best course of action is.

Anecdotally, police officers know where the crimes are and who the bad guys are but I will lean a little to the book-smart or administrative side on this one – anecdote is good but we’ve got to be able to validate the results that we’re getting and that is something that UMSL or any university will bring us and I think there’s a very valid place for that. Much like the private sector, and I’ll call it market research, they continually go out and sample to make sure their products or services are meeting their needs or their consumers’ demands. That’s exactly what we need to do, to make sure that what we’re doing has a result, has an outcome and makes people safer and feel safer.

Q: What do you think of the recent UMSL report that recommends that the results of investigations of officer-related shootings be publicly posted?

Dotson: I want to sit down with (the author of the study) and talk about that. I read the report but there are questions I have about that. This is an issue I would advise the (police) associations to sit down and talk about as well as the community. ... I want to know more about it.

Q: What do you think of another study that said St. Louis police officers fire their weapons more frequently than officers in other big cities?

Dotson: I want to make sure it’s not a training issue. I want to make sure that our policies allow the officers to use their weapons when they need to use them. I want to make sure that our policies support the officers’ actions to keep them safe. We have to make sure our officers are safe all the time.

Safety is a big priority for me. So I’m not going to armchair a shooting I haven’t read, but overall ... let’s look at them and see if there’s a better way to do better training, better tactics to reduce the number of shots-fired incidents. But to look at a study that says we fire 66 and 2/3 more than other departments it certainly brings the question of whether we’re doing something different than other departments and we should look at that and UMSL or a university can help us with that.

But also the officers on the street, they have to tell us, “Hey, I was in a situation and I fired my gun. Here’s why I did it.” Were your tactics sound? Was it a proper use of force? I think we have those questions. I go back to “the community has a right to know” but I also believe the officer has a right not to be tried in a court of public opinion. If their actions are justified, they’re justified. If their actions are not justified .. then we’ll proceed … but you talk about morale, to let officers be tried when their intentions are good in a court of public opinion … I think the department and the chief has a responsibility to be open and transparent but it also has a responsibility to protect the officer. Sharing the information and the data, absolutely. Sharing the officer’s name, I don’t know if there’s a good reason why.

Q: What have been your most satisfying and least satisfying assignments in your police career?

Dotson: I have two most satisfying. As captain of the Seventh District I was able to get out and go to neighborhood meetings, the ability to ride with my officers as they were out doing patrols, it reinvigorated me. It made me realize this is what the job is about. This is what we’re out doing.

I call it the noble cause, that we do the right thing for the right people at the right times, and to be out there on the street doing those things with my officers in the seventh district was an incredible experience and I liked that.

My other favorite one was planning the pope’s visit, in 1999, simply because we were very fortunate in St. Louis to have the pope come. It's not an event that a lot of people get to be involved in. To do the planning for the 36 hours that he was in St. Louis was a highlight. There’s no question about it. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event for a lot of us.

My least satisfying? That’s a tough one. I left the department for a year to go to Anheuser-Busch – that was my least satisfying time. Anheuser-Busch was a great place to work but at the end of the day I didn’t have that feeling that I actually accomplished something or that I achieved that noble cause… At the end of the day at the brewery it was about beer, pretzels and horses. It just wasn’t that satisfying for me.

Q: As a young officer did you have any memorable arrests?

Dotson: I had a couple. I caught the same guy breaking into cars two days in a row. My favorite one, I was a young police officer and I was riding around the fourth (downtown) district and a call came out for a larceny from a vehicle. … They said they had a guitar in their car and somebody broke in and stole their guitar. So an hour later, I’m riding around on the other side of the district and I see a guy walking down the street carrying an electric guitar. I thought, “This can’t be this simple.” I said, “Come here. Where did you get that guitar? “ And he said, “What guitar?” like I wouldn’t see it.

Q: What about your personal life, and what do you like to do in your spare time and what about hobbies? (Dotson is recently divorced after 18 years of marriage, has no children, and is currently moving into a house in St. Louis Hills)

Dotson: Actually, I like to read, more so than I thought. As I’ve gotten a little bit older I enjoy reading. I like to play indoor soccer; I enjoy that. What else do I do? I like to work. That’s all I have time to do. … Moving into a new house is exciting for me.

Q: What do you consider your strongest personal attribute?

Dotson: “I think I have the ability to communicate with people. I have the ability to sit down with a group and work through the issues and find out what’s important. And then when we’ve come to some conclusion about what’s important, to actually go out and implement it. ...

I’m an operations guy. I know some people who are teachers and some people who are managers, but I’m an operations guy. I actually like to see how plans are put together, how we implement the plans and then evaluate them. So I’m not one of those people who like to sit in an office and come up with a great idea and tell people to go out and implement it. Hey, I like to work through the creation process with the group and then I like to go out and implement it or be part of the implementation, too. That’s why I liked that operational planning job (in which he planned the pope’s visit), because it let me create a plan and then go out and implement it. That’s what the operations job in the city is about – being able to direct and coordinate activities and see them through. So that means I’m an operations guy and I’m a little more hands on.

Q: If you weren’t a policeman, what would you be?

Dotson: If I wasn’t a policeman; it sounds very nerdy, but I’d be an economist, because anybody who has studied economics knows that economics is not about dollars and cents but about behaviors. An economist studies behaviors and that’s what I like.

Q: Why did you really want this job and what difference can you make?

Dotson: I think anybody who is in police work, that takes it as a career and seriously, always wants to aspire to be the best that they can. The best that they can can manifest itself in a whole bunch of ways. If I was a gun guy, I’d want to be the best marksman in the department. If I was a work-out guy I’d want to be the best at defensive tactics. I wanted the job because I think I have the ability to impact the greatest number of people in the city of St. Louis, meaning that I can help the resources of the department to go out and fight crime as best and efficiently and as smartly and as safely as we can, and I think we can make people safer and I think that I can help the city of St. Louis continue this growth and continue this development that’s been going on.

So that’s why I wanted the job because I thought I was best qualified to do that. You always aspire to be the best in your profession that you can be or the best at whatever you’re doing and I think that my vision or how I see the police department interacting with the city offered a lot to the residents, offers a lot to the department and offers a lot to the region.

Bill Bryan is a freelance writer.

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