Saturday, April 18, 2015

2015 Leadership Symposium

The police department is an organization with many traditions. Some are of distant origin, stretching back continuously for over 100 years. Others are more recent.

One of our newest traditions is the Leadership Symposium, a periodic gathering of all the agency's supervisors and commanders. These are typically held at least once a year, with an agenda designed to promote discussion of pressing issues and current events.

In years past, we've talked about things like vehicle accidents, crime lab procedures, property storage, performance appraisals and other technical matters.

This meeting, for obvious reasons, was different. Our Symposium this year confronted a much more fundamental set of questions - questions about the state of law enforcement as a profession, and the relationship between the police and the people.

The conversation started with a review of the legal guidance being provided to local law enforcement in light of recent events. Here we talked about some of the reports and recommendations that the Department of Justice has provided to guide the future development of best practices in policing. We also heard from attorneys at both the circuit and federal level, to gain the benefit of their expertise on topics like exculpatory evidence and constitutional rights.

Next we turned our attention to one of the most important questions in police work today: how we are changing the way we govern and monitor law enforcement's use of force, especially officer-involved shootings. Leading this session was the supervisor of our new Force Investigation Unit, who described a new and meticulously designed set of procedures we have recently started using to examine critical incidents.

We also talked about another new unit, the Office of Community Engagement and Organizational Development. This, I'm proud to say, is by far most comprehensive outreach effort in the department's long history, including ambitious plans for youth programs, community level training, reconciliation initiatives, management of internal culture change, and progressive re-training of officers, among many others.

Our final segment dealt with one of the biggest challenges we face as these efforts move forward: the complicated relationship between law enforcement and the black community. The framework for this nation-wide discussion was established, with admirable fairness and clarity, by FBI Director James Comey in his excellent speech at Georgetown University earlier this year.

Listening to Comey's speech helped us all remember both the historic basis of the tensions that remain so powerful today, and the way that legacy influences various different perceptions of current events. It also asked us to do something difficult: to search our own hearts for hidden bias and then do the strenuous work required to overcome it.

Why did we have this conversation? Why did we spend the warmest Saturday of 2015 indoors, learning about policy and talking about work?

We did it because we have to, because it's the right thing, and because our future - as police officers and as people - demands that we have this conversation, and live by its lessons.

And for anyone who's interested in knowing more about what we discussed today, here's a link to the FBI's Directors remarks. Listen for yourself.

Monday, March 2, 2015

They Said It Couldn’t Happen. They Were Wrong!

There are very few times where I believe the saying "I told you so" is appropriate, but last Friday may have been exactly one of those times.

You see, last Friday in St. Louis, St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Robert Dierker dismissed a case against Raymond Robinson who had been arrested by police officers for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

The facts of the case were not in dispute.

Yes: a convicted felon, and

Yes: in possession of a firearm. 

Slam dunk, right?  Well, not anymore.  When legislators in Jefferson City proposed – and voters approved -- a change to our State's Constitution with Amendment 5, they altered the balance between safety and justice by requiring that “strict scrutiny,” which is the most rigorous form of judicial review, be applied to gun cases.

The state senator who co-sponsored Amendment 5 is an attorney. He has said he did not intend it to allow felons to be in possession of firearms. He is now running for attorney general.

I'm not an attorney, but it was very clear to me at the time that the people we arrest, the criminals who prey on the public, would use any means they could to subvert the system and not face the consequences for their actions. I said so.

Missouri’s Amendment 5 does very little to further the rights of law-abiding, citizens, who have ultimate protection under the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution. 

What Missouri’s Amendment 5 does do is give criminals the cover to have firearms, and it makes it harder to hold them accountable for their actions. It makes the jobs of police officers more dangerous and the jobs of prosecutors more difficult.

This is the primary reason Rebecca Morgan from Moms Demand Action and I are still in court challenging the ballot language of Amendment 5.  We could see this day coming, in spite of the Amendment's supporters, who said it would never be used to set criminals free.

Legislators in Jefferson City don't always see the disparate impact of their decisions.  I was in Jefferson City at the end of the last legislative session, when a representative said to me "I'm up for re-election in [not St. Louis or Kansas City].  I have to have a gun bill.”

Please note that my problem is not with Judge Dierker. He did his job. He interpreted the available law and applied it to the case before him.  In my estimation, the problem is the law was always more of a political move than good policy. Misleading and incomplete ballot language simply disguised that fact.  I told them so.

There is an opportunity for the Supreme Court to resolve this immediately by striking Amendment 5. Otherwise, we could see more and more challenges to common sense laws. 

I will keep you posted on our legal challenge.  

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Our Safer Future: Closer Than It Seems

I'm sure I speak for many throughout the St. Louis region when I say that the close of 2014 is bittersweet.

This year has been an exhausting ordeal for all of us. The toll it has taken is simply enormous, going well beyond what we can readily express in numbers or words. The millions of dollars in damage, the thousands of hours of emergency work and the hundreds of documented crimes and incidents don't begin to tell the whole story. These are just quantities which do not signify the truth of what people in our community felt and what they experienced emotionally.

I've always said that the business of public safety involves more than just driving objective reductions in the crime rate. People must not only become safer; in fact, they must be allowed to feel safer and more secure in a way that goes beyond numbers.

This Fall, too many people in St. Louis felt less safe and less secure and some expressed their frustration at having gone without that feeling for a long time. Saddest of all for someone in my profession was that many people expressed a feeling of insecurity about their relationship with the police. On the other side of that same unfortunate coin, many police officers saw their safety directly and deliberately threatened because of who they are and what career they chose.

If we had the means to measure it, I feel certain that our collective sense of safety and security is lower now than it has been at any time since September of 2001, with this tragic difference: while the insecurity we all felt after 9/11 brought us together, the insecurity we feel after Ferguson has so far been pulling us apart.

That cannot continue and indeed it must be quickly and decisively reversed. There is too much at stake - including 25 years of dramatic progress in crime reduction - for us to let ourselves move backwards. As hard as it is to remember, the fact remains that lately, we've been winning big in our long struggle to build a safer society, a more peaceful society, a society with less of the pain and fear which comes from violence.

The people who've been leading us in that struggle and helping us build a safer society have a name: they're called police officers. Every year, they save thousands of lives which would otherwise be lost to the madness of crime and violence. Every day, they risk their own safety to do this. Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos happened to be from New York, but could have been from anywhere. They were murdered, targeted specifically for being cops, in a depraved act meant to terrorize every man and woman who wears the uniform in this country. But their killer miscalculated because the truly brave cannot be terrorized.

Yet painful and difficult as our recent troubles have been, we must not fail to notice how the present compares to the past. For even in these most trying hours, when anger seems to crowd out every other human emotion, life is becoming more precious, not less.  

The turmoil of 2014 has written us a very clear set of instructions for 2015. No one can pretend not to understand those instructions now, and no excuses will be accepted if we fail to carry them out.

We know what is broken and what must be fixed: it's the trust. We know we must work to create a society in which the feeling of safety and security is restored to those who've lost it.

None of these things can be accomplished by anyone alone. Preventing violence is the job of the police but it's the business of everyone who values peace. One unambiguously positive thing to come from this year's events is a dramatic increase in public awareness at every level. More people than ever are paying attention to the crucial questions of law enforcement, criminal justice and public safety.

And this is where I find the strongest sign of hope as we move from the old year to the new: it's in the fact that we all depend on each other and the fact that we're all ready to say goodbye to the status quo. Sooner or later I know those facts will overpower our divisions and serve to bring us together closer than ever. 

We don’t rest, we work to build a better and safer future. A future that we all want for ourselves and our families.

Happy New Year, this year more than ever.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

23rd Annual New Year's Eve Candlelight Service: My Remarks

Twenty-three years ago, we in St. Louis lost a member of our extended family: a young man named Curtis Johnson, who most of us never had the honor to know.

He would have been a full grown man today, making his mother proud, and probably raising a family of his own. But Curtis didn't get that chance, because he was taken from us by gunfire when he was just 22-years old.

Those who have never lost anyone like that cannot imagine what it feels like.

We're here tonight because Jeanette Culpepper took that terrible feeling, that unimaginable pain from the loss of her son and tried to make something good come from it. She went to work and started helping us build a society where sons could not so easily be taken from their mothers. Jeanette Culpepper founded "Families Advocating Safe Streets" and created a new tradition for St. Louis: a New Year' Eve candlelight vigil, held to honor the people we've lost to senseless acts of crime.

Jeanette and the "Families Advocating Safe Streets" never stop working and never stop fighting to raise awareness, to break the cycle of crime and to reduce violence in our community.

This year we remember 159 people too many, whose friends and families are now facing the same unthinkable tragedy as Ms. Culpepper; losing a loved one to senseless violence. I think a lot about those 159 people and their loved ones now. Most, like Curtis Johnson, were very young when they died. Some were just children. I think about what lives they could have led, and most of all - because it's my job - I think about what might have saved those lives.

I think about Juliette Cleveland-Davis, age 46, who was shot right in front of her three grandchildren as she walked with them on a summer evening. She was caught between two groups of young men trying to kill each other. I think about 32-year old Zemir Begic, beaten to death with a hammer by a group of young boys while driving home.

The sad truth is we've taken a step backwards recently, and there's no denying it. We lost more people to violence this year than last.

Looking ahead to the future, we see millions of people who are now awake and alert to the problem of violence, and the preciousness of life. Our fellow citizens are more focused than ever on the need for public safety, and in the long run, that focus will make it easier, not harder, to address the problems which need to be addressed.

Of course Jeanette doesn't need anyone else to tell her that lives or white, young or old, rich or poor. She's been teaching us that for years, and clearly, this world we live in needs to be reminded.

But, then…I don't have to explain this to any of you, because you're already engaged and involved. You never stopped paying attention. Like Jeanette Culpepper, you cared long before it was fashionable or popular to do so.  

That's why you're here, and that's why I'm so grateful to know you are.

The root word for “vigil” means "wakefulness" or "keeping watch".  It's from the same root that we derive the word “vigilance”, which we use in expressions like "eternal vigilance is the price of freedom". Well, I happen to believe vigilance is also the price of public safety, because I believe the best antidote to crime and violence is a citizenry that's wide awake and aware of the problem, and willing to work together in a search for solutions. In other words...people like you.  

Thanks for keeping the vigil. Let's all pray for a happier new year. ​

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving: My Message to Employees

The last several months have been a busy and emotional time. Everyone has worked hard and performed well in some very stressful situations.

During normal times we would be preparing for a holiday, giving thanks and spending time with our family and friends.

This year things are different. This year we are charged with the responsibility of providing the safety for those who call St. Louis home during a particularly trying time in our history.  

Even though this is a busy and unprecedented time, please know that your efforts are producing results.  It's a very old story in law enforcement that you never get credit for what you prevent.  Still, you know and I know that whatever has happened and whatever will happen next, this city is immeasurably safer with you on the job, more than it could ever be without you.  Civilization is a fragile thing.  It takes thousands of years to build and only moments to place in peril.  The people who protect it in those moments are called the police. 

One thing about extraordinary circumstances like these, is that they leave no doubt for what, and to whom, this city should be thankful.  So let me be the first to say what millions of people are rightly thinking.

Thank you all.  Thanks for everything you do, for everything you risk, for everything you sacrifice, for everything you endure and for everything you accomplish. 

During this holiday our time at home will be limited, but I want to take a moment to thank you for the job you do and to wish you and your families a safe and Happy Thanksgiving.

Chief Sam Dotson

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Our First Priority

This week, the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office confirmed that a grand jury continues to hear evidence and that they expect a decision on charges for Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson soon. Although I can’t predict the outcome of the process or what may occur as a result of the decision, as the City’s Chief of Police, I can reassure you of the Metropolitan Police Department’s commitment to your safety and your rights.

No matter what the announcement is, the department’s first priority is to protect and serve our citizens…and that includes protesters. And we are ready to do so.

Our department has sat down with protest organizers and had valuable conversations to ensure their rights are protected. We have also met with residents, neighborhood groups, other City departments, other police departments, elected officials and business owners to assure them of our commitment to their safety.

We have consistently said the same thing to everyone: While everyone is welcomed to the City of St. Louis to exercise their First Amendment rights and let their voices be heard and their cause advanced, doing so while putting the lives of other citizens or officers at risk will not be tolerated.

So far, unlike Los Angeles in 1992 and Cincinnati in 2001, there has been no loss of life as a result of civil unrest. I credit our officers’ training and the protesters’ organizers for that.

I hope that continues.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Attorney General Koster's Roundtable on Representative Policing: My Remarks

I’d like to thank Attorney General Chris Koster for bringing us together to talk about this important topic. The past 50-plus days will be transformative in law enforcement, not just here in St. Louis, but around the world.

Ferguson is emblematic of a problem. Decades and generations of social and economic disparity, years of profound underemployment, lack of educational opportunities, increases in black-on-black crime, a lack of access to affordable healthcare and real mental health services. These are problems that impact large segments of our community, as others have already said this morning.

The narrative Ferguson is writing for our nation and the world is still being written and will continue being written over the next months, but today we have a chance to impact that narrative in a meaningful way.

Discussing race will forever be a difficult conversation in our world and it is especially difficult for a white police chief in a community that is approaching 50 percent African American. However, it is exactly the reason why we should have this conversation, and why we are having it here today.

Communities most impacted by crime need law enforcement the most, but those communities also have come to fear police as an occupying force. In some communities, police have become the face of government because government has failed to provide even some of the most basic needs. This creates a cycle of mistrust and if we want to talk about the cycle, we must first understand symptoms.

Mistrust of the police comes from a very basic level and sometimes occurs because of where someone is standing when they look at the problem. Implicit bias is real and we are working to address it. We all have beliefs and biases that we allow to reach from our subconscious into our daily interactions and create hurdles.

I'll give you an example of “not in my backyard”. I firmly believe economics is key to our region’s growth. With growth and investment comes better infrastructure and better accessibility to all the things we know curb crime: jobs, education, affordable healthcare, etc.

Today, we come together as a region, as a community and as one city to talk about the challenges that we face. We know that linking Downtown through the central corridor to North County to the airport with Metrolink needs to continue to St. Charles and Chesterfield; yet many people say, “not in my backyard”.

Today, we are here to talk about representative policing, however, really limiting the conversation to policing doesn't do the conversation justice.  

The criminal justice system needs to be representative of the community that we live in. When I say live in, I don't mean just where we lay our heads at night. I mean the entire community; where we go to sporting events, where we dine and where we vacation.

Law enforcement agencies must look for qualified applicants; ones that understand their implicit biases, and ones that are reflective of the communities they serve. I think we all agree that qualified applicants are the key. 

We have to be serious about recruitment. For qualified candidates, governments compete with Emerson, Anheuser-Busch, Centene and all the major corporations who pay much, much better.

Two-thirds of the applicants that apply to the Metropolitan Police Department are white and about 30 percent of applicants are black, even though we service a community that's approaching 50% African American.

We look for opportunities to keep our community safer. Opportunities as simple as an armed offender docket, which asks the courts to have specific paths to monitor individuals that hold our communities hostage. Representative policing is not just about the uniform; it’s about justice, safety and the rights we all share.

So while the word ‘police’ has become generic in some conversations, the conversation is not just about civilian oversight or body cameras. It's about having a justice system and a process that works for all…including black, white, male, female, gay, lesbian, disenfranchised, rich or poor. Representative policing is about having a system that works for us; for St. Louisans, for Missourians, and for Americans.

Let’s have a real conversation today, not just about the symptoms that manifest themselves but about solutions to the causes of the symptoms. Ferguson has started a dialogue that has been significantly unremarkable since the end of the 1960's. Let’s really have the conversation.

Thank you, again, Attorney General Koster for bringing us together to make this conversation happen.