Why St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden May Have the Toughest Job in America; Last Year, the City Saw Its Highest Homicide Count since 1994, and It Is Recovering from Months of Protests after a Police Officer Was Acquitted in a Fatal Shooting

By Delkic, Melina | Newsweek, March 9, 2018 | Go to article overview

Why St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden May Have the Toughest Job in America; Last Year, the City Saw Its Highest Homicide Count since 1994, and It Is Recovering from Months of Protests after a Police Officer Was Acquitted in a Fatal Shooting


Delkic, Melina, Newsweek


Byline: Melina Delkic

Updated | Earlier this year, after John Hayden had taken over as the head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, the local paper advised him to "bring a broom." Which was apt. The new chief inherits a department swept up in scandals over race, brutality and corruption. Meanwhile, the murder rate is frighteningly high. Last year, 205 people were killed, the most in 23 years, and the city is on its way to becoming the murder capital of America for the fourth year in a row.

But Hayden, a well-liked, 30-year veteran of the force--and the department's fourth black police chief--has a plan to crack down on crime while trying to alleviate racial tensions. Among other things, his plan involves hiring external investigators to probe police shootings, to allay public fury over internal mistakes. Coming from someone else, the moves might not seem sincere, but Hayden is known for his willingness to criticize fellow officers over excessive force and the spate of shootings of unarmed black men. He's also pushing the department to meet community members face-to-face, -especially in the city's most violent areas, where he sometimes works on street corners with his folding table and laptop.

"In some ways, I think law enforcement nationwide has been a contributor to the tension that's there," Hayden tells Newsweek. "If we [police] are not personable, if we're not talking to people, if we are focused on statistics and focused on arrests only, there's a lack of empathy that goes toward exacerbating that tension."

Over the past few years, the St. Louis area has been the epicenter of the problem. In 2014, a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in nearby Ferguson. A grand jury declined to press charges against the cop, Darren Wilson, sparking protests and drawing national attention. Three years later, a judge acquitted another white officer, Jason Stockley of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, in the fatal shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith, who was black. Prosecutors alleged that Stockley planted a gun in Smith's car and tried to prove premeditated murder with a dashcam tape on which the officer says he was "going to kill this motherfucker." His acquittal brought renewed scrutiny to the city's police department, as thousands marched in the streets. The police sent hundreds of them to jail.

Hayden remembers those incidents well, and he says they will guide his leadership. "I'm starting with my commanders, and we're looking at what went well and what didn't go well during the protests," he says. The goal is to allow people to express their freedom of speech without much intervention. Yet he stressed there are extraneous circumstances, as when a protester threw a brick at an officer and broke his jaw the weekend after the Stockley verdict. "There were a thousand people out in the streets that night," he said. "There's not a lot of best practices, if you will, when you're that outnumbered."

Hayden also says he's going to be tough on cops when they make mistakes. He supports hiring an external body to probe police shootings, instead of internal investigators. It's a move protesters demanded but one that law enforcement often criticizes. David Klinger, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says the department has better resources than any external agencies. "Who knows how to investigate homicides," he asks, "better than homicide investigators?"

Perhaps, but Hayden has seen some of the department's mistakes firsthand. For years, he led investigations for internal affairs, which resulted in the terminations, prosecutions and even convictions of his peers. Those cases involved officers assaulting subjects, falsifying police reports and theft. …

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