'Looking for a unicorn:' St. Louis searches for police chief to lead a department under scrutiny
The search for a new chief of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department — underway since Sam Dotson retired in April — is into its sixth month. Applications were due on Thursday, and a new chief should be in place by January.
The final steps of the process are taking place with the department under a bright spotlight from protesters demanding more police accountability, and the scrutiny could impact the way the rest of the search plays out.
The SLMPD isn’t the first department in the area to be looking for a chief while its city was under fire. Ferguson did so back in 2015, when the U.S. Department of Justice found its police department fostered a racist culture and raised money on the backs of the residents its officers policed. Ferguson's chief, Tom Jackson, was one of several officials who resigned.
Wesley Bell was sworn in as a Ferguson City Council member from in April 2015, a month after the report was released.
“It was one of those decisions we could not afford to get wrong,” he said of selecting a new police chief. “I think all hands were on deck to make certain that we turned over every rock to ensure that the process was handled so that we got the right person.”
Fifty-four people applied for the job, Bell said. And he thinks the circumstances may have improved the quality of the candidates.
“There’s a lot of people who saw this as, hey, this is an opportunity to do good,” he said. “What will be more important that what I’ll do in my life than to try and turn this ship around?”
A similar opportunity now exists in St. Louis, said David Dwight, who is the communications director for Forward Through Ferguson, the organization set up to implement the recommendations of the Ferguson Commission report. He is also the co-chair of a citizen’s committee advising Mayor Lyda Krewson in the police chief search since May.
“We’ve heard some people say it’s a shame that this is happening after the Stockley verdict but it’s the opinion of many on the committee that this is the best time for us to be searching for another police chief,” Dwight said. “There’s no opportunity for us to run away from our reality.
Krewson established the committee months before a judge found Jason Stockley, a white former St. Louis police officer not guilty of first-degree murder in the 2011 shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man. That verdict triggered the latest round of protests for greater police accountability.
The input from the community from the beginning echoed the demands of protesters, according to Lisa Cagle, who represents the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression on the advisory committee.
“We’re looking for someone who not only is technically qualified, but also who is not afraid of pushback, who is not afraid of criticism, who is willing to make some very significant changes, not just holding individuals accountable, but holding a whole department accountable,” Cagle said. “Really, in the end, we’re looking for a unicorn.”
Getting citizen input in Ferguson was crucial to finding the right candidate, said Bell.
“I never cease to be amazed with the things that I learn from simply just listening,” he said. “Oftentimes, that citizen who comes in on public comment and makes a comment and you’re thinking, ‘after all this research I’ve done, I didn’t think of that.’ And we know that the more buy-in you, get, you increase the likelihood of getting it right.”
The chair of the criminology department at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Joseph Schafer, agrees with Bell.
“Policing is something that ideally should be done with communities and public, not TO the communities and public, and that can extend all the way back to the point of hiring a chief executive,” he said.
But public participation can only go so far.
One of the critiques of Krewson’s advisory committee is the lack of police voices on the committee.
“I think the mayor in her new term wanted to take a different direction and make it more about community input, because we have a platform,” said JP Johnson, a strategist for the St. Louis Police Officers Association.
And there is a lot of skepticism about whether Krewson will listen to the committee. Its members have been involved in almost every step, and they, along with the community, will have a chance to interview the final candidates. But the mayor and her public safety director will choose the new chief.
Krewson has pledged to take the committee’s opinion into account.
“It would have been very easy if we wanted to just pick the chief. If would have been easier to just do that and not have gone through this process,” she said.
Dwight, the co-chair, acknowledged the committee will not be the one officially hiring the new chief.
But, he said, he and his colleagues will make sure that all the finalists have the qualifications residents want: “that they’re thinking about de-escalation and use-of-force, that they want this guardianship mentality rather than a warrior mentality.”
The impact of a chief
In addition to questions about the influence of the advisory committee, there are more fundamental doubts about how much will change even with a new police chief in place.
“What makes you think you all are going to solve our problems by finding these candidates?” activist MeldonMoffitt demanded of the committee’s members at a recent meeting. “None of them are going to accomplish the job that we need. They’re not going to solve our racial problems.”
SIU’s Schafer agreed that a chief can only influence his or her department — not other areas of government. But, he said, they do play a critical role in changing how a department operates.
If leaders and leadership are able to convey to the frontline personnel and the average employee how that reform will make the organization better, how that reform will make them better as an employee, there’s an opportunity there,” he said.
The advisory committee has been thinking about reforms more broadly, Dwight said. A chief is an important component to reforming public safety, but it’s not the only part.
“As we’re doing community engagement, we’ve been trying to make sure that this isn’t just building a platform for the selection of a police chief, but building a platform for an ongoing discussion and action in St. Louis about how we approach public safety, and moving away from just enforcement and incarceration.”
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