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Government, Politics & Issues

A look back -- and ahead -- with Police Chief Dan Isom

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 27, 2009 - Since being appointed St. Louis' chief of police little more than a year ago, Daniel Isom has had his hands full -- and not just with fighting crime. Perhaps just as important, Isom has been working to boost police morale and instill public confidence in a police department rocked by a towing scandal, police thefts and other unseemly developments.

It hasn't been easy. Just last month, Missouri Auditor Susan Montee released an audit that pointed to "inadequate, ineffective and inefficient business practices" within the department. Isom wants to reform the department's practices by putting fiscal responsibilities in the hands of someone with the same financial experience of a city manager.

In one major policy shift, he has decided that the department will begin revealing the identities of police officers involved in shootings. The department made the change in response to a Sunshine Law request from the Post-Dispatch. The department says the identity of an officer will now be made public once a homicide investigation becomes "inactive." That means the information will likely be made public before internal affairs completes its investigation, which usually follows the homicide investigation.

A spokesman stressed that Isom wanted this policy carried out in a way that "balances public accountability with police safety." The comment illustrates how Isom is trying to balance the interests of the police and the public.

Isom discussed other issues in a recent Beacon interview, edited for length and clarity.

The holiday season can bring a spike in crime. Has the department noticed any changes in the way criminals operate or any disturbing emerging crime trends?

Isom: The focus of attention of criminal activity is a little different from last year. Certainly, break-ins have increased in the city and in the metropolitan area. It seems (to be) a crime that's occurring more than others.

You can point to a number of reasons. We're going through a severe recession, and it's a property crime, an easy way to obtain additional money. Cars are part of people's lives, and they carry (valuables) around in them. So it's an opportunity (for criminals) to break into cars, take property and sell that property. It's a crime of opportunity. Another area, robbery, has gone up some as well, but not as much as break-ins. I'd equate that with the same explanation. In tough economic times, people are looking for revenue, property to sell.

You want to make it a felony to possess a gun when committing a crime even if the person doesn't use the weapon in the crime. Why?

Isom: Missouri allows people to carry weapons legally, and I understand that. But changes in the law now allow individuals to carry weapons in their cars, and the weapons don't have to be registered and don't have to be owned by the individual. You don't have to have a conceal-carry permit. We have sentences for committing crimes with weapons. What will we do with a person riding in a stolen car with a conceal-carry permit? Now we arrest that person, but technically, the person can legally have that gun. I would suggest at the very least an additional charge of riding in a stolen vehicle with a gun. We know that when these guys break into cars and are interrupted by the victim, they shoot at the victim.

We have to have some sanctions for values that are not in line with what we want as a society. It's very easy to carry a gun legally now. I think we have to make the statement that if you carry a gun legally now during the commission of a crime, there are going to be severe consequences. I point to New York and the wide receiver (former New York Giants' star Plaxico Burress who faced charges of criminal possession of a weapon after accidentally shooting himself in the thigh). I'm not saying our laws have to be the same as New York's, but we've got to send a message.

So what else are you doing to address break-ins besides pushing for stiffer laws against criminals who possess guns?

Isom: We're working on a pretty aggressive public awareness campaign. I think that's probably the best solution, letting the public know how it can protect itself. We're also thinking about some different avenues in terms of prosecution, including diverting cases not (pursued) by state court (into) city court. We need to be more aggressive on our public awareness side so people know what to do: Park in well-lit areas, make sure your valuables are out of the car. Those are examples of things that people need to do.

Some law enforcement officers argue that society cannot prosecute its way out of its crime problem.

Isom: Arrest is not the only solution, but it is an effective one. In the early 1990s, we had a crime spike, and researchers believe that part of the dip in crime was a result of the high incarceration rate. Now I know that comes at a cost to society because at some point those people get out. I think it has been proven that if you incarcerate the people committing the most crime, crime will go down. But what you're suggesting is correct: If you're going to have long-term sustainable drops in crime, there will have to be other answers. I think the mayor (Francis Slay) is an advocate for what is the cure -- investing in early education. It's pretty evident that if you have young people who are educated, you're going to have better citizens. As a society, we need to start investing earlier in young people.

The Police Board consists of the mayor and four other commissioners appointed by the governor. What are the pros and cons of switching to local control of the department? Which structure do you prefer -- local or state control?

Isom: From the standpoint of law enforcement, it really doesn't matter whether you have local or state control. We have the same mission -- to protect the (residents) of St. Louis. With that said, there are various structures for who has ultimate responsibility for the police department.

I just came back from a conference of 15 major city chiefs and that question was asked. There were chiefs who worked under mayors and chiefs who worked under commissions. I think the conclusion was that it depends. It depends on the mayor you work for or the commissioners you work for. So I really don't have a preference. At the end of the day, the responsibility for the police department lies in the hands of the person who leads the organization, and that's always going to be the chief of police and the body placed on the chief of police for oversight.

Let's talk about the internal problems. Do you think the public has been surprised and upset by the towing scandal and other problems in a police department that hasn't had a reputation for problems like these? And how have these internal problems affected morale?

Isom: Police departments, like any organization, go through cycles. Certainly we've gone through a cycle where we've had multiple incidents. Yes, I would expect that the public would be concerned. But that when you look at it as a whole, you'll see that we're in a self-purging process. The incidents involved a small number of individual officers. It really does point to the integrity of the organization as a whole.

Certainly when you go through (what) we have, it's going to affect morale. Nobody who really cares about the organization feels good about the things that have happened. Overall, officers are encouraged that we have done what we needed to do to make ourselves a better organization. When I talk to officers, they feel upbeat and positive about the direction we're going. We've made dramatic changes in the last year, very significant changes. We're probably in a hold pattern now, making minor adjustments. We've moved some commands around, placed more officers on the street. We've completely restructured our narcotics division. We've instituted a rigorous training process. Then, internally, we've put a lot of checks and balances in place. We've developed an audit schedule where we aggressively have audited our practices.

So have we reached rock bottom, or are we still cleaning house?

Isom: Well, I don't know if you would characterize it as cleaning house. We're not actively seeking out officers who might be doing things wrong. But as things come to our attention, we're going to investigate them. If we see problems, we're going to look into them.

What other changes can we expect?

Isom: We're working to put more resources into law enforcement. We're talking about (how) to eliminate the manpower we provide for sporting events and special events. A committee (will) work out the details. As we look at best practices across the country, police have begun to pull back from those responsibilities, and private entities must provide the resources. Those conversations have gone quite well with sporting venues. We still need to figure out how it will be done for other sporting events, such as bike races, marathons, parades and other special events.

It won't be a true savings. It will be a savings in terms of putting (police) resources back into communities and neighborhoods. My goal is not necessarily to save money. The money is already spent. If we have 10 officers doing traffic detail for St. Louis Cardinals events for 81 games, that's 81 days they are not in neighborhoods. That's 40 days at St. Louis Blues games that they (police officers) are not in neighborhoods. Everybody has been very cooperative, but it will take some time for us to work through that.

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