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Kenneth Gregory on being ‘the biggest change’ St. Louis County Police have seen

St. Louis County Police Chief Kenneth Gregory on Friday, Jan. 28, 2022, at the county police headquarters in Clayton, Mo. Gregory was named the county police department’s permanent leader after serving as interim chief since last year.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Police Chief Kenneth Gregory, shown in his office in Clayton last week, says being named the department's leader shows the cultural shift the department has made in 40 years.

Kenneth Gregory got into law enforcement “by accident.”

In 1974, he was teaching sixth grade in the Jennings School District, making $8,200 a year. And though he loved teaching, there wasn’t much of a chance to move up. At the time, the district locked teachers into the introductory pay scale if they couldn’t get their master’s degree in five years.

Gregory had gone to the University of Missouri on a football scholarship, and he could not afford any further education. As the five-year mark approached, he knew he would have to find employment that could support a family.

Kenneth Gregory is shown here in this archival photo from Mizzou Athletics during his days as a defensive halfback for the Tigers football team.
Mizzou Athletics
Gregory during his playing days on the Mizzou Tigers football team.

“As much as I hated to leave Jennings, I started looking for another job,” he said.

Gregory joined the St. Louis County Police Department on Dec. 2, 1979. It was about five years later when he realized that law enforcement had turned from a job into a career.

“I was moving along in the department, met a lot of people here,” he said. “The job just grew on me.”

Gregory rose in the ranks, eventually becoming the commander of the Division of Patrol, the department’s largest. In June, after Mary Barton retired, he was named acting chief. And on Jan. 25, the Board of Police Commissioners voted to remove the “acting” title, making Gregory the first Black chief in the department’s history.

Gregory recently spoke with St. Louis Public Radio’s Rachel Lippmann about what his historic promotion means for the department and the projects he wants to complete before he eventually retires.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Rachel Lippmann: In remarks to the police commissioners, you essentially said that no one would have ever looked at St. Louis County and said a Black man will lead this department. Why?

Kenneth Gregory: I think it’s just the culture that had been established with this department over the years just didn’t favor minorities being in command positions. But over a period of time, that culture has changed. And I think it’s positive for our department to have realized those changes, and to make those changes visible. And I think me sitting here is probably one of the biggest changes the department has ever seen.

Lippmann: Given that the department is facing multiple lawsuits alleging discrimination in the promotion and transfer processes, has the culture changed enough?

Gregory: We’re making it possible for those types of issues to be addressed here before they decide to take it to the court. We’ve opened up our complaint review procedures and our harassment policies and procedures to where we are giving people who are having issues with this department the opportunity to come and talk about whatever those problems may be. I have an open door policy.

Now, they still may want to go to court, but we want to give them that opportunity before they go to court.

Lippmann: What does it mean to be the first Black person in department history to sit in the chief’s chair?

Gregory: It means a lot. I’m sure it means a lot to the African American community as well. It shows that there is a cultural change within the department. I think it shows other minority officers looking to get to higher positions that it can happen.

Lippmann: You have had a long career with the department. What has been the biggest change you’ve seen in those 42 years?

Gregory: There is more police-community engagement. If we’re not transparent with our communities, if we’re not out there working alongside of them, letting them know what we’re doing, and trying to make long-term relationships with them, it makes our jobs harder.

We don’t want to be out there in communities that don’t trust us, so we’re trying to be more transparent. If we don’t have that community engagement, we’re not doing much for the department, and we’re obviously not doing a lot for the citizens.

Lippmann: What are some of the priorities you have for the department?

Gregory: My biggest priority right now is hiring. We need to get some people into this profession.

My overall vision for the department is to show ourselves as an elite police department to our citizens and to other police departments. Within that, there are some initiatives that I want to start.

Lippmann: What are some of those initiatives?

Gregory: I keep saying hiring, but also diversity in our hiring process. I want to offer career development for our civilian staff who we cannot operate without.

We really need to increase our community engagement, not just with the citizens but with the clergy as well.

I also want to think about succession planning, people moving up within in the department to take positions.

Lippmann: As a veteran officer, how do you work to relate to officers in the academy, or recent graduates, or even younger officers who could be your children or your grandchildren?

Gregory: I tell them that, if this is what you really want to do, then on this department, there is nothing we don’t offer you if you want to have a career.

Lippmann: Since you are 70, how long do you think you’ll stay in your current role?

Gregory: I haven’t given it much thought, but I have talked to a lot of veteran chiefs.

This job has gotten a lot tougher. There’s a lot involved in it. There were chiefs that sat here for 14 years. It’s gotten to the point now where, if you can put in five years as chief on a department this size, you’ve probably done quite a bit. That’s kind of where I am now. I’ve just started this, and I just want to give this a shot for as long as I possibly can.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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