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St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden To Retire In February

Chief John Hayden announces that he plans to retire from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department on Sept. 8, 2021, as Mayor Tishaura Jones listens.
Rachel Lippmann
St. Louis Public Radio
Chief John Hayden speaks to the media Wednesday after announcing he will retire from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department in February.

The St. Louis Police Department will be getting its fourth chief in 5 years.

John Hayden announced Wednesday he will retire from the department in February after 35 years of service, the last four as chief.

“This decision was carefully and prayerfully considered by myself and my family, and we all believe that it's time for me to pass the proverbial baton,” he said. “I want everyone to know that serving as the 35th police chief for the city of St. Louis has been the honor of a lifetime.”

Hayden said he appreciated the opportunity to serve in the administration of Mayor Tishaura Jones, who took office in April. She called him an ally in her efforts to reimagine public safety.

“He's worked with our administration to change police patrols and implement other solutions,” Jones said. “While we have more work to do, and more months to go, I'm encouraged that homicides are down 35% from this time last year.”

Jones said the search for a new chief is already underway, in order to ensure a “seamless” transition. She promised extensive community input and said the search would include both internal and outside candidates. Her administration hopes to have a new chief in place by Hayden’s retirement.

Hayden’s legacy

Hayden took over as chief on Dec. 28, 2017, after the city’s first nationwide search for a new police leader. He called the job a “blessed challenge,” pledging “to do everything within my power to fulfill your and the citizens’ expectations.”

Maj. John Hayden, commander of the St. Louis police department's North Patrol Division.
File photo / Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
Then-Maj. John Hayden speaks at a chiefs' candidate forum in 2017.

The department was facing challenges on a number of fronts. Homicides and shootings were continuing a climb that had started several years before. To combat that rise, Hayden introduced a “rectangle” strategy that focused police and social services in high-crime areas of the city, especially an area of north St. Louis bounded by Goodfellow, West Florissant, Martin Luther King and Vandeventer. Hayden said Wednesday he expects that approach to continue.

“I think some of the neighborhoods that get a lot of violent crime are well-known to the community and so naturally, we're in those spots,” he said.

The rectangle showed mixed results. In its first year, violent crime went down inside its boundaries but also citywide. And in recent years, that trend has reversed, with the city seeing a near-record number of homicides last year.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Hayden when he took over was restoring the department’s reputation with the public, which had been battered by its response to protests against police brutality in 2017. The department was sued numerous times in federal court for its use of tear gas and other chemicals. Five officers would later face criminal charges for assaulting a fellow officer, Luther Hall, who was undercover at a protest.

Hayden said he made changes to his command staff, putting new people in charge of Internal Affairs, the Civil Disobedience Team and the Force Investigative Unit. He pointed out that there were no lawsuits over the way the department responded to protests in 2020 after the death of George Floyd.

"The public expects that if something serious happens, that serious consequences occur. And I think that we've done that,” Hayden said. “And so I think that's the lessons that we've learned.”

‘An inspiration’

John Leggette, speaking for the Ethical Society of Police, called Hayden an inspiration. The Ethical Society advocates for officers of color in the department.

“So many of our members have been mentored by Chief Hayden, including myself, or otherwise influenced by him in a meaningful way,” said Leggette, who is the society’s chaplain. “We wish Chief Hayden all the best in his retirement and his journey forward.”

The St. Louis Police Officers Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Dan Isom, the city’s interim public safety director, joined the department a year after Hayden. On Wednesday, he congratulated his friend and called him someone who had served with integrity.

“He has been a great partner in the effort to reimagine the police department, and bringing the right people to the right call,” Isom said. “And so, as the mayor said, we want someone who can continue that, and who has been a dedicated public servant, just like the chief has been so far.”

The next months could mark a potentially transformational moment in policing in the region. Both St. Louis and St. Louis County are looking for new permanent leadership — Mary Barton retired as chief in the county in late July. Both departments have hired an outside consulting group, Teneo, to implement reforms the company suggested in December. And the two departments have worked closely to combat crime in northwest St. Louis and northeast St. Louis County, an effort that drew backlash from some civic leaders who felt excluded from the process.

“We would hope that whoever is hired in the city and the county also is open to being more collaborative and working together a lot more,” Jones said.

The board that oversees the county police department has not yet set up its process for hiring a new chief. The county's interim chief, Kenneth Gregory, wished Hayden well in retirement.

"Chief Hayden has committed much of his life to the City of St. Louis and the safety of its citizens. We hope the future brings the best of health, happiness and success on his next journey in life," Gregory said.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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