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The search is on for a new St. Louis police chief, and everybody has a wish list

St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson speaks with attendees before the start of a speech delivered by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on March 31, 2017.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
With the retirement of Chief Sam Dotson, shown in a March 2017 file photo, St. Louis will conduct its first national search for a new chief since the city gained control of the police from the state in 2013.

For the first time in its history, the St. Louis Police Department can look beyond its ranks for a new chief, something that officers and community members say the city should take full advantage of.

“That person shouldn’t have any connection to the department,” according to Sgt. Heather Taylor, the president of the Ethical Society of Police, which represents officers of color.
But the city will have competition, as St. Louis is one of eight major police departments, including Kansas City, currently searching for a new chief.

There’s no timetable for when the city will replace Chief Sam Dotson, who retired April 19, the day after Mayor Lyda Krewson was sworn in. Krewson and other city officials are in the process of drafting a job description for the position.

Community involvement should be key in the process, said John Chasnoff, the longtime co-chairman of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression. He said residents should be allowed to help write the job description and play a role in the interview process.

“If we’re really serious about a community-oriented, problem-solving police department, we need to start that with a community-oriented selection process,” he said.

Communities also are at the center of the expectations of Alderman Brandon Bosley, D-3rd Ward.

“He has to be compassionate, and passionate about helping communities do better, and not just do everything he can to lock up those individuals who are wreaking havoc or being detrimental to the community,” Bosley said.

And new alderman John Collins-Muhammad, D-21st Ward, is looking for someone with a “diverse background.”

“We need someone who understands how to effectively police constituents and citizens, and not just deal with tactics that do not work,” he said.

Casting a wide net

Chasnoff believes St. Louis will see a lot of qualified candidates, despite having to go up against places like Dallas, Austin, Texas, Honolulu and Sacramento, California.

Jamala Rogers (bottom left) and John Chasnoff (bottom right) after the civilian oversight board they have championed for 30 years received initial approval on April 15, 2015
Credit File photo | Katelyn Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio
John Chasnoff, pictured here in April 2015, says the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression wants the community to be more involved in the search for a new chief.

“St. Louis has a lot of attraction for somebody who wants to come in and make change. I think this is a city that’s been in the national spotlight and I would think a creative and forward-looking chief would want to take on that kind of challenge,” Chasnoff said.

Of the 18 major police departments across the nation that have hired chiefs since January 2016, 12 hired a candidate from inside. Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Chicago replaced outsiders with insiders, and the Phoenix Police Department hired an officer who began her career there, but served as chief elsewhere before returning.

In Pittsburgh, Cameron McLay was the first outsider in the department’s 150-year history to be selected when he was hired in 2014.

“We needed somebody who could come in who would have the ability to instill professional standards within the bureau, take away the politics, and make a bureau based on merit and the state of the art training,” Mayor Bill Peduto said in 2016, when McLay retired. “We needed someone who could mend the wounds with the community, and build a bond between the Pittsburgh police bureau and the people they serve.”

McLay’s replacement, however, was an insider — current Chief Scott Schubert, who has nearly 25 years with the department.

“I was impressed when I first met him,” Peduto said in February when Schubert was sworn in. “He was a combination. It was technology that he used to stop car break-ins Shadyside [a Pittsburgh neighborhood.] It was his understanding of policing and understanding that he was the police officer’s officer.”

St. Louis’ hiring process

Replacing Dotson, who will remain with the department for a year as a consultant, starts with a job posting that, when ready, will be on the city’s website for at least three weeks. (Personnel director Rick Frank said the city will likely accept applications for a month or more.)

After the position closes, he said, applicants will take a series of written exams. Some may also get a first round of in-person interviews.

When those initial screenings are complete, Frank said, the Department of Personnel will certify the top six candidates, who are determined by test scores and other factors including, for example, whether a candidate is a military veteran. A second panel will conduct final interviews with the six.

The director of public safety will officially hire the new chief, Frank said, though he expects Krewson to be heavily involved.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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