ST. LOUIS — Byers' Beat is a weekly column written by the I-Team's Christine Byers, who has covered public safety in St. Louis for 15 years. It is intended to offer context and analysis to the week's biggest crime stories and public safety issues.
The selection process for who will lead the region’s largest police departments has turned into a complex game of chess in recent weeks, with taxpayer dollars and public safety at stake.
Note: The video above is from the announcement of John Hayden's retirement from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.
The pool of candidates has narrowed, and, in some cases, widened to include applicants with racial and legal histories within their respective departments.
The City of St. Louis’ process could be headed toward a redo, which could require a bureaucratic shift and carry a costly lawsuit with it.
And St. Louis County’s process doesn’t appear to have made much movement for months – except a controversial candidate has made his move toward the crown.
Here’s a look behind-the-scenes of the search to name the new chiefs of the St. Louis city and county police departments.
St. Louis City
St. Louis has never hired a chief from outside its own ranks, so internal candidates automatically have history on their side.
But the pool didn’t turn out as diverse as Mayor Tishaura Jones was hoping – and one of the candidates has a pending discrimination lawsuit against the city.
Jones told our news partners at the St. Louis American: “I only had two white male candidates to choose from and St. Louis is more diverse than white males, our police department is more diverse—there were a lot of diverse candidates within the police department who were kicked out of the first round so I want to start over to find the right candidate.”
But starting over isn’t that easy, as the mayor doesn’t have the powers of a queen on this chessboard.
The internal candidates that didn’t make the first cut Jones is referring to didn’t qualify per the standards set by the city’s Personnel Division.
The division launched a search after John Hayden, Commissioner of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, announced in September he would be retiring Feb. 23 – the day marking his 35th year with the department.
He’s been at the helm for four years.
The Personnel Division required applicants to have a bachelor’s degree as well as at least 10 years of experience at the rank of captain or above.
That left only four people eligible from within the department eligible to apply: Two women and two men.
The eligible candidates were Rochelle Jones, a Black woman; Mary Warnecke, a white woman; and Larry O’Toole and Michael Sack – both white men.
Apparently only O’Toole and Sack made their moves.
The Personnel Division also opened the search to outside candidates and selected four to give to Jones’ Public Safety Director Dan Isom. Isom makes the final decision from the pool of six candidates the personnel division gives him.
In addition to interviews, a written test is part of the process.
Only Sack and O’Toole showed up to take the test, according to sources familiar with the process.
Jones’ office said in a statement she shares concerns that the Civil Service Commission has about how external candidates were not allowed to take the test virtually due to the pandemic. The commission is a three-member body that presides over appeals filed by city employees following personnel division decisions.
“The mayor's hope for the people of the City of St. Louis is that there is a fair and transparent application process,” according to the statement. “She views the Civil Service Commission's concern about the lack of virtual testing as a valid one.”
Jones’ office acknowledged the city charter does not allow the mayor to restart the process on her own.
“That is up to the Department of Personnel and the St. Louis Civil Service Commission,” according to the statement.
The situation will test how much power the Director of Personnel has.
Through the years, numerous police and city leaders have told me the city’s personnel director is the most powerful position in the city – the proverbial queen when it comes to making moves, and, with very few checks on their power.
During Mayor Francis Slay’s administration from 2001 to 2017, city attorneys drafted a legal opinion stating the director is a quasi-independent body with considerable autonomy who can only be removed for malfeasance, misfeasance or nonfeasance.
So, even though the position is appointed by the mayor, the mayor can’t control their decisions, and the commission can only elect to remove him or her for those incredibly difficult categories to prove.
Richard Frank was Slay’s pick, and he held the position all the way until Nov. 30, when he resigned for medical reasons.
So, will the next personnel director restart the chief’s selection process as the mayor wishes?
The St. Louis American reported, “(Jones) wants to start over completely,” after finding a personnel director. But Jones can’t appoint a personnel director of her choosing from the outside.
The city’s charter requires an interim director to be chosen from within the personnel department.
Frank once told me it’s designed to keep politics out of personnel decisions.
So, for now, the interim director holding the position is not Jones' pick.
And there’s another piece making its way across the board toward the chief’s crown. A candidate the Jones administration will have to handle with care: O’Toole.
He applied for the position following the abrupt retirement of former Chief Sam Dotson on former Mayor Lyda Krewson’s first day in office in 2017. Krewson’s Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards selected Hayden as chief – which led O’Toole to file a lawsuit against the city alleging discrimination.
O’Toole infamously declared the police “owned the night,” in September 2017 following mass arrests during protests that followed the acquittal of former St. Louis Officer Jason Stockley for the murder of Black drug suspect Anthony Lamar Smith. That night, police arrested dozens of people including a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter as part of a technique that became coined as “kettling.” Many of those arrested that night have filed lawsuits against the city.
Five police officers were also indicted for assaulting a Black officer who was working undercover as a protester claiming he resisted arrest. Four of the five officers federally indicted for their role in the assault have been found guilty or pleaded guilty to charges related to the incident.
In his lawsuit, O’Toole alleges Edwards told him if it hadn’t been for Stockley, he would be chief.
Politically speaking, O’Toole’s conduct during those protests doesn’t align with the picture of police reform Jones has been touting since taking office. His lawsuit is still pending.
Should the city re-start the process because he was only one of two finalists, he could have grounds for a retaliation claim. That’s where the big bucks are when it comes to civil settlements.
So how is this going to be resolved within the few weeks Hayden has left at the helm? Who will lead the police department in one of the country’s most violent cities? Will there be an interim or acting chief appointed?
Customarily, that role goes to the Deputy Chief. In the city, that’s O’Toole.
The statement the mayor’s office issued in response to my question about whether there will be an interim chief named and who that will be didn’t make things any more clear Friday.
“Right now, the focus must be on the concerns raised by the Civil Service Commission around the initial part of this search process,” it said.
St. Louis County
Former St. Louis County Chief Mary Barton’s retirement quietly took effect Dec. 27.
She announced in July she would be retiring at the end of the year after about 13 months as the county's top cop, using time off until then and her deputy chief, Lt. Col. Kenneth Gregory, would be serving as the Interim in her place. Her exit followed a tumultuous and short tenure at the top plagued by racial missteps and controversies.
She had filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and her departure came with an agreement to drop the complaint.
In the county, a five-member civilian police board hires and fires the chief. The commissioners are appointed by the County Executive. Right now, there are only four. All four commissioners were appointed by County Executive Sam Page.
The police department sent me a statement Monday on behalf of the police board. It read: "The board has continued to discuss and consider but has yet to determine our process for selecting a new chief. The board will announce the details - the process, timeline, decisions, when decided."
Barton’s selection as chief in May 2020 led Lt. Col. Troy Doyle to file a discrimination lawsuit against the county, accusing Page of passing him over for the position because campaign donors did not want to see a Black police chief in office.
Doyle made his move toward the crown on Twitter on Dec. 20.
“I’m looking forward to competing for the St. Louis County Chief position when the selection process opens. I appreciate all those who have reached out with words of encouragement.”
His lawsuit is still pending.
So he, too, will be watching closely how the next chief is selected – whether he gets bumped out of the process before it even begins, or, as he argues in his lawsuit, is again picked over despite his qualifications.
Page once lobbied police board members to vote for Doyle to take over the department. Since then, however, Doyle publicly released a recorded conversation in which Page could be heard saying the police board does what he tells them to do.
Should the county give Doyle grounds to add a retaliation claim to his lawsuit, it could end up in court.
The last time a St. Louis County officer sued the county for retaliating against him, he walked away with a $20 million jury verdict.
An earlier version of this story contained inaccurate information about how the interim personnel director is chosen. It has been corrected.