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St. Louis Post Dispatch: St. Louis police chief out on new mayor’s first full day

ST. LOUIS • Police Chief Sam Dotson is retiring after more than four years on the job, new St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson said Wednesday, her first full day in office.

Dotson, 47, has been chief since 2013. He met with city leaders Wednesday morning and they came to a mutual agreement that he retire, Krewson said.

“We were talking about the future of the police department and he made the decision to retire,” Krewson said. “We appreciate his service to the police department and the city of St. Louis.”

“Public safety is certainly job one,” said Krewson, who was sworn in Tuesday. “This will allow us to turn the page and begin anew here.”

Dotson’s retirement is effective immediately, but he will serve as a consultant to the city for a year, reporting to Public Safety Director Charlene Deeken. His salary in that role will be $129,000, the same salary he was making as chief.

He served 22 years with the police department and is eligible for a pension of about 48 percent of his average salary during the past three years.

The city will immediately search for a replacement. Deputy Chief Lawrence O’Toole becomes interim police chief. Krewson said she was interested in a national search for a new chief but would not exclude internal candidates.

Krewson made public safety the centerpiece of her campaign, and in her inauguration speech Tuesday afternoon said she would “rebuild the frayed relationships between law enforcement and our community.” Krewson, a longtime alderman from the Central West End, first won election to the board in 1997, two years after her husband was fatally shot during a carjacking. Their two young children were in the car.

In a brief phone interview Wednesday, Dotson declined to discuss his meeting with Krewson. He said he was proud of overseeing the department’s transition to local control from its state-run structure, the move to a new headquarters building and his work with then- Mayor Francis Slay to reduce crime.

“I’m very proud of our organization,” he said. “We’ve done a great job in the difficult and trying times in our world after Ferguson.”

As for his next move, Dotson said. “After 4½ years in this job going 24/7, a vacation involving a beach sounds like a good idea.”

In a statement Dotson issued Wednesday, he said he was “optimistic and hopeful about the future of our city and our police department.”

“As I transition to my new role, I have the utmost respect for all of those who wear the badge and the uniform,” the statement said. “It was my honor and pleasure to have led the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department for over four years and to have worn the uniform for 22 years.”

Slay protégé
Dotson was selected as chief of police from a field of 11 candidates in December 2012. He announced in October that he was going to run for mayor, but withdrew about a month later. Slay pressured him to resign if he wanted to run for office, saying he would not tolerate a part-time police chief.

Dotson’s brief candidacy also spurred the Board of Aldermen to consider removing him from office. Several aldermen introduced a resolution calling for Dotson to resign. It failed, but backers had the option to bring it back up.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Board of Aldermen included several other mayoral candidates at the time, including Krewson.

Slay had long been considered one of Dotson’s staunchest supporters; Dotson was viewed as a protégé of sorts. Before becoming chief, Dotson served as Slay’s director of operations for about 20 months while on loan from the police department — during which time he negotiated the first collective bargaining agreement between the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association and the city.

The police union’s business manager, Jeff Roorda, held a press conference outside City Hall Wednesday and said the organization was “completely blindsided” by Dotson’s departure. He said he learned of it from reporters and believed Dotson had been forced out.

Roorda said the union, which endorsed Krewson, had repeatedly asked her “to sit down and talk” about the future of the police department. Roorda stopped short of saying whether the organization regretted its endorsement.

“Those requests have gone unrequited as the mayor is making some pretty big moves in the police department that will affect this police department for years to come,” he said.

“We are hopeful that the mayor is just sort of feeling her oats and that not engaging with the 1,100 members that we represent … is just a slight misstep,” he added. “If we’re going to have a relationship like this … it’s going to be a long five years.”

Dotson’s relationship with the police union has been unremarkable, with few public clashes. But the Ethical Society of Police, which represents black police officers, has criticized Dotson for what it characterizes as racist hiring, firing, disciplinary and promotional decisions.

Its president, Sgt. Heather Taylor, said Wednesday that her organization wished Dotson the best, but that he was not the best fit for the department.

“Getting ahead of crime and improving officer morale are critical for us right now,” she said. “We’re losing officers, and some of the reasons are morale and decisions Dotson has made and other decisions upper command has made.”

Less crime, but more murders
Reported crime overall has gone down during Dotson’s tenure as chief, but the city’s homicide total spiked to 188 in 2015 and 2016.

Homicides have also risen in St. Louis County and in some other cities around the country. Dotson is known for coining the term “the Ferguson effect” as one reason why crime nationwide is rising, saying added scrutiny on police after use-of-force incidents could be making officers more reluctant to act or make arrests, fearing a confrontation. It’s a theory experts have debated.

The city’s homicide caseload also prompted Dotson to ask city leaders for money to hire more officers and raise salaries.

The department has shrunk to 1,189 officers on its rolls, about 114 officers short of what’s budgeted. Dotson had said he wanted to fill the vacancies and hire an additional 160 officers.

Departments across the country have reported shortages of applicants, blaming low salaries, safety risks and increased public scrutiny as hurdles. Dotson was among several police leaders who voiced support and concern in early April about the passage of Proposition P in St. Louis County that is set to boost officer salaries in the county.

He predicted it would attract recruits away from the city for better-paying jobs, and hoped the county’s move would force city leaders to take action on officer salaries.

Dotson has at times clashed with local judges, repeatedly criticizing them for being too lenient on those convicted of gun-related crimes and assaults on law enforcement officers.

During his tenure, the department has undergone re-districting, encrypted its police radios and partnered with criminologists from the University of Missouri-St. Louis to study crime trends and improve its hot-spot policing techniques. But aldermen have doubted Dotson’s strategies.

During the Ferguson unrest, Dotson called city officers out of the police response, saying he did not agree with some of the St. Louis County Police tactics.