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A conversation with new St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief John Hayden

St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief John Hayden poses for a portrait in his office at police headquarters on Olive Street.
File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief John Hayden says he was drawn to policing for its clearly defined mission. His mission as chief, he says is to tackle violent crime.

It did not take Col. John Hayden long to determine his top priority in his new position.

“The first thing for me to tackle is going to be violent crime,” said Hayden, a 30-year veteran of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. He was promoted to his position as its 36th chief last week, selected from six finalists.


Hayden took a rather unconventional path to law enforcement. He started at Washington University as a pre-med major, but switched to math, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1985.

“When I was in school, I always had kind of an interest in the military,” he said, “and friends of mine also knew that. One of my friends was on the police department already, and he said, ‘hey, John, being a police officer is kind of like being in a local military.’ And for some reason, when he said that, a light bulb kind of went off in my head, and I said, ‘he’s kind of right.’ And so I went through the application process, and I got accepted.”

Hayden joined the department in 1987, and served in a number of posts before being promoted.

When you were introduced as the chief, you called this job a 'blessed challenge.' Can you elaborate?

I certainly believe that the Lord saw me through this process. I would say that the Lord put me as No. 1. I don’t think that’s something that I could have forecast. So that’s the blessed part. But at the same time, it’s a very challenging job, with a lot of moving pieces and a great deal of responsibility. It just made me think of the passage, “to whom much is given, much is required.”

What is your strategy for fighting violent crime?

I’m going to try and increase our opportunities to intervene in situations that might lead to a homicide. So that will require me to put the supplemental resources, like my special operations, my mobile reserve, my anti-crime units up in those areas.

I’ve actually identified an area between Goodfellow and Vandeventer running east and west, and Dr. King and West Florissant north and south where a lot of the violent crime has occurred over the last few years. I’ll pay particular attention to where there are open drug sales.

Sam Dotson and officers listen to James Clark before a hotspot patrol in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood.
Credit File photo | Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
Then-Chief Sam Dotson and James Clark with Better Family Life speak to officers before a hot spot patrol in the Wells Goodfellow neighborhood in May 2014.

How is this different than the ‘hot spot policing’ that’s been part of the crime-fighting strategies used by the last couple of chiefs?

Hot spot policing implies that there are ebbs and flows. Many of the neighborhoods and the streets that I’m referring to are systemic problems.

I was looking at the Post-Dispatch the other day, and there was a map of homicides, and one of the darkest areas was Wells Goodfellow. And I remember Chief [Daniel] Isom doing a Wells Goodfellow homicide initiative. And so, that’s not a hot spot if it’s systemically violent.

We’ll absolutely follow up with resources. We’ve already done some things like talking to families, trying to discourage youth from shooting back at each other. Recently, myself and James Clark were up at North Side Community School talking about shootings at Euclid and Cote Brilliante. What we pledged at that meeting was that his counselors would work closely with our gang intervention officers, and we can work as a team to curb some of the violent acts.


Tell me a little bit about your ‘mobile office.’


Necessity is the mother of invention. I was going to community meetings, and people were asking for a greater police presence at certain locations. And the challenge I had was I didn’t have an officer to put at those locations. After I thought about it, I realized that I was available. So I took a laptop and a folding table and I was able to sit on a corner, as well as send some of my community outreach officers to knock on doors and get some neighborhood input. And sure enough, my presence plus their presence really made a difference.

I plan on actually putting a schedule out when it comes to a mobile office. I think it’s going to be successful.

Who should investigate officer-involved shootings?

Certainly as you read documents like Forward Through Ferguson, you learn that the best thing to add public trust and confidence is to have an independent investigation. And I agree with that.

They talk about the attorney general being the prosecutor if necessary, and the Missouri State Highway Patrol being the investigator as long as they aren’t involved in the shooting. That’s the recommendation. The implementation is something that would require conversations between us, the attorney general’s office, and the state Highway Patrol. The logistics would have to be worked out before that recommendation could be realized.

What will you keep from Lt. Col. Lawrence O’Toole’s time as chief, and what will you change?

I’m certainly going to do a lot more community policing. And what I mean by community policing is using neighbors to help solve some of the crime challenges; them having input in what you’re trying to do. The mobile office is just leading by example, putting myself out there and engaging with people. Once you establish relationships with people, they are much more likely to help you. Many major cities have seen marked improvement when it comes to spending time with people and re-establishing public trust.

When you look back over a year in this job, how will you be defining success?

I would like to see a significant decrease in violent crime. That being said, I can’t promise that, but I do believe that I increase the probability by doing what I said, by putting those resources in those places that have are systemically violent.

We know that we can’t always have the impact that we want, but I think that seeing my level of engagement will at least allow them to say that … even if it didn’t work like he thought it would work, that’s the guy we want trying everything, because he’s so engaged.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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

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