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Mary Barton Talks About Taking Over St. Louis County Police Department In A Pandemic

Col. Mary Barton, pictured May 1, 2020.
File photo I David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Col. Mary Barton, the ninth chief of the St. Louis County Police Department, listens to questions during an interview May 1. She is the first female chief in the department's 65-year history.

Mary Barton last week became the first female chief in the 65-year history of the St. Louis County Police Department. On the day she was sworn in, she sat down with St. Louis Public Radio’s Rachel Lippmann to talk about her long career and what she plans for the department.

Barton has worked in every precinct but one as a patrol officer, in the vice and drug units, and as a detective. Before her promotion, she commanded the West County Precinct. 

But she said there is nothing that can prepare even the most seasoned officer to take over one of the largest police departments in the state in the midst of a pandemic.

“It’s been a really strange kind of past six weeks ever since I got selected,” Barton said. “But I think that walking in the middle of a problem is a lot easier than walking in when there’s nothing going on, because it keeps you on your toes. It makes you come to work and go, ‘OK, what’s going on today, what do I need to do, what I do I need to fix, what are the challenges facing me today?’ There’s no lulling me into a false sense of security and then something bad happens. It’s already here.”

Adding to the pressure, Barton said, is the historic nature of her promotion.

“I would like to think that I was chosen for my qualifications, and where I’ve been, and what I’ve done and the content of my character, and not my gender,” she said. “I see myself as somebody who worked incredibly hard in this police department, didn’t have a lot of support, and then realized that my job might have been just to mentor other people and help them along. And if that is a beacon for other women, I hope that it will be a beacon for other people to say, ‘Hey, maybe I should help somebody along the way.’” 

In an April 30, 2020 screenshot from YouTube, Col. Mary Barton's husband pins her new badge to her chest after she is officially promoted to chief of the St. Louis County Police Department.
Credit File photo | Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
In an April 30 screenshot from YouTube, Col. Mary Barton's husband pins her new badge to her chest after she is officially promoted to chief of the St. Louis County Police Department.

Barton took over from Jon Belmar, who retired April 30 after 34 years with the department, and six and a half as chief. 

“I am more of a consensus-type management style,” Barton said. “I think when you include people, and you really hear all the different voices in the police department, that’s how you make the best decision. I don’t believe you can make everybody happy, but I think everyone needs a seat at the table.”

Barton hopes that desire to reach consensus helps the department avoid another discrimination lawsuit like the one filed by now-Lt. Keith Wildhaber. In 2019, a jury found that Wildhaber had been denied promotions because he is gay. The county is paying more than $10 million to settle the case.

“Do I know anything that could have been done differently in the history, going back? No, I don’t,” Barton said. “I was not really involved in that, so I can’t really speak to what was done or what happened. But moving forward, I’m hoping to get from our new Diversity and Inclusion Unit a wider perspective of what they feel the problems to be in the police department. It's about inclusion, it’s about having a seat at the table and about speaking your mind.”

Barton said she doesn’t want her officers to fear telling her the truth.

“I want you to tell me what you think I don’t want to hear. I want to know the negative things. I can’t please everybody, but you know what, you’re going to get your five minutes,” she said. “I think it’s important for people to know that their voice matters, and that they have some say in the future of the police department.”

Boosting the diversity of the command staff is also an important goal for Barton. She was one of just two women among the 23 officers eligible for promotion to chief. Five men of color were eligible, but no women of color.

“It’s not just about diversity in the promotions process. It’s getting people to want to participate,” she said. “We have to say, how do we fix this promotional process where it’s perceived as fair and equitable, and how do we get people to participate in it and want to seek leadership?”

To help with that task, Barton plans to set up a formal professional development program within the department. She also pointed to efforts the department has made since Ferguson in connecting with the community to boost diversity at the lower ranks, such as the cadet program, Police Explorers and the Police Athletic League.

“I believe that this department has taken great strides to engage the community, to get our message out there that we are trustworthy and we are people that genuinely care about your problems,” she said. “I think we’ve moved forward, but you can’t ever rest when you want people to be committed to working on relationships.”

Barton joked that she’ll measure success in a year by whether she’s still chief, adding more seriously that she would also like to see her planned professional development program up and running, assuming the budget allows. But mostly, she said, she wants a period of calm for the department.

“This police department, in the last several years, has seen its ups and downs,” she said. “First Ferguson, and then the death of an officer, and then the Stockley verdict, and then COVID-19. I would like to say we had six months where nothing bad happened here and we just rolled along, continued to do our job, gave great service to the community, and we had a time to step back and take a breath, because we haven’t had that in a long time.”

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.