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Photography by Kevin A. Roberts
When St. Louis Chief of Police Dan Isom retires this month after four years in charge (and 24 on the force), he will have done what he was hired to do: clean up the department in the wake of the graft scandal that ensnared his predecessor. He was the chief with a blog (http://stlchiefblog.blogspot.com/) and a Ph.D., and now he’s headed back to academia, joining the faculty at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
Why are you leaving the job now?
I came in with a goal to try to move the police department forward with a very focused plan, and that’s what we did. We used a strategic plan that was one of the first the department has had, and we revised it every six months to a year. We focused on elevating the level of integrity and reducing crime. I think we had a very good plan. One of the reasons I’m leaving for [the University of Missouri–St. Louis] is because I do feel that the P.D. is in a good position to move forward into the future. We’re pretty stable right now, with no huge issues in management or integrity. We still have crime, of course, but we’ve reduced that significantly over the last four years. Now is a good time to turn it over to someone with energy and more ideas to move us forward.
During your tenure, St. Louis was called out in a list or two for being one of the most dangerous cities in America. You reacted angrily to those lists.
I think that when you talk about evaluating crime and comparing communities, you have to look at the total picture. Because of the city-county split, there’s a difference how our communities are made up. For example, would you compare the performance of kids at the Ladue schools to that of children in the St. Louis city public schools? Certainly, they’re both capable of great success, but there’s one group that has much more support economically, so it’s not always an apples-to-apples comparison. The same goes for say, St. Louis and Boston. To compare a city with a completely different demographic and very different social and economic issues to another is not fair. Most academics look at all the factors around crime—that’s better. You have to compare apples to apples.
You have a Ph.D. in criminology and criminal justice from the University of Missouri–St. Louis, and a master’s degree in public administration from St. Louis University. Have you ever been teased for being smart, or maybe called “professor”?
One of the things that I’ve downplayed a little bit was the fact that I have a Ph.D., because people in the profession often believe you can be too smart to be a police officer. I don’t believe that. I wanted to focus more on what we needed to do to change the police department to address crime, in a thoughtful and somewhat academic way, but not watered down in over-analysis.
You interviewed with Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago for the top-cop job there a few years ago. How close did we come to losing you then?
I met with the mayor and we talked for a long time about the job and what his expectations were and my philosophy, and though we had a great conversation. I don’t think, based on that conversation, that we had the same philosophy or direction that they wanted in Chicago, which is fine. They’ve got a great chief there doing a great job.
What would you say people don’t know or understand about your job?
One of the things they don’t understand is the complexity of the job in terms of it extending beyond just fighting crime. There’s so much more that the chief has to do, involving human resources, the laboratory, IT, fleet service for 600 vehicles, dozens of buildings, and so on. Everything is directed toward fighting crime, but it’s a large complex organization to manage.
What was your typical day like, as police chief?
Sometimes the day starts as early as 2 or 3 a.m., if there’s a major incident, so it can start very early. But usually I start at 5 or 6 a.m., and I roll over and pick up my Blackberry or iPad and start to review all the crime that’s occurred in the previous watch. I look at all nine districts and many of the special operations units, so I can be aware of whatever’s happened when I walk through the door. I actually do that while I’m still in bed. Then I look at the news shows to see if there’s anything that I missed. I get online and read the paper. Then I go to the office. Every day, I have a crime briefing with the deputy chief of community policing. I meet with people in the board offices and my staff. And there’s a series of internal and community meetings I go to with community justice partners, either local, state, or federal. I review my emails at some point. I might have long-range planning sessions and phone calls. It’s a lot. It never really ends. It’s 24 hours a day. Even when you’re at home or out of town, you never stop working. You’ve got to stay connected to what’s going on.
What are some of the most moving moments you’ve experienced in your long police career?
I remember when I was a younger officer in the Eighth District and a homicide affected me for a long time. It was a young girl who was 15 and pregnant, and she was shot in a drive-by. She actually died while we were waiting for the ambulance to arrive. It was so emotional. We watched her life slip away. Dealing with officers being hurt and killed in the line of duty has been extremely difficult, too, and takes a lot out of you emotionally. It’s like losing a family member or a child.
What about the funniest moments?
As far as funny things, I remember one incident when I was a mobile reserve officer. At the time, we could chase stolen cars, and they would often flee. On one case when we saw a stolen car at a stop light, we jumped out of the car and got to the driver’s side door, and as soon as the light changed the perp just drove off. That was kind of funny. All the other drivers stopped at the traffic light laughed at us.
Of the movie and TV shows about cops, do any of them strike you as realistic?
I don’t watch any TV shows, just the news and sports, but some friends of mine awhile back encouraged me get the past episodes of The Wire. Some aspects of The Wire are very, very similar to aspects of the St. Louis police department.
Is being a cop a thankless job?
No. I think it’s a very difficult job. To be successful at it, we’ve got to rely on small victories. If you look at the entire scope of what we have to accomplish, it can seem extremely daunting. But there’s a lot of people out there who really believe in us and appreciate what we do. We did a citizen-satisfaction survey when we started, and we found that 75 to 80 percent of the people approved of our performance. When you compare us to the politicians, that’s great. [Laughs.]
What are the big changes you’ve seen on the force in the last 24 years?
The most significant change that I’ve seen is the spread of the belief that we can deter crime. There are a lot of factors, and the police don’t control them all, but the idea that we can have a significant impact is a new trend. Using computer technology and observing trends can make a big difference. The other thing is how we can use technology during the process of law enforcement. We can process info and get it out more rapidly to police officers. We have GPS, in-car cameras, license plate-recognition systems, and video surveillance all really exploding in the last 15 to 20 years, and these are all tools to help us attack crime. And then there’s the public scrutiny of law enforcement aided by new technology, like Youtube and cell phones. So there’s much more accountability, because there are more eyes focused on us than ever before.
What’s it like to be a policeman and to depend on a partner?
My first partner was much older, so it was like a father-son relationship, because I was new. If there was a pursuit, I would jump out to run after the perp, and he would stay in the car and try to drive and cut the person off, because I was the younger one. The second partner I had, we were closer in age, so that was more like a partnership, Sometimes we went out at night together, so it was a friendship, too. It was a very close bond, because you have to rely on that partner for your life. When you spend eight hours a day every day with a person in a car, you really get to know them.
You once wrote on your blog that “policing isn’t the only solution for our problems in education. Jobs and programs for families and kids will help us to have long-term solutions to violence in our communities.” Can the police help bring about that kind of progress?
With strained resources, I’ve tried to affect that as much as I possibly can without diverting a substantial amount of resources from our main objective. We have officers in the St. Louis public schools as juvenile officers, and an “Officer Friendly” program that goes into kindergartens. We have a “Books and Badges” program where we help with reading and homework. We have a youth police academy, so we’ve tried to do as much as we can to support the education of children and help the St. Louis public schools in any way we can. If we can keep communities safer, the police department is going to be more successful. About six months ago, I asked the board if we could start a partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters where we can be mentors. I think we have about 20 cops who are mentors now.
What hobbies will you indulge in now that you’re retiring?
I hope that I’ll be able to do a little more reading and research—and play a little more golf. I used to play once a week, and when I became chief that became two to three times a year. Hopefully I can get back to that. But really, I’m looking forward to sharing the experiences I’ve learned in law enforcement for the last 24 years and exposing young people to all aspects of criminal justice.
When you were a child, did you ever steal a pack of gum from the store, like I did, or break the law in another way?
I’m sure I did something wrong. All kids do. It’s part of growing up. You do little things that your parents correct you for.
Have you ever busted a party full of drinking teenagers?
I can’t remember, but I’m sure I have.