Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

St. Louis Mayor Looks to Reform Police Operations and Crime

Mayor Tishaura Jones wants to make change by defunding the police and jails and redirecting the funds to social workers, affordable housing, homeless aid and civil rights litigators.

(TNS) — Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, from her first snowy April day in office, has signaled her administration will bring a fundamental shift in the way City Hall addresses police operations and crime in St. Louis, Mo.

"I stand here before you today resolved to make change," Jones said in her inaugural speech less than two weeks ago, "to transform our city and to transform our approach to safety."

Jones' first acts as mayor have highlighted her ambition to alter course from decades of tough-on-crime mayors and her predecessor, Lyda Krewson, who narrowly beat Jones in the 2017 Democratic primary and opted not to run for a second term.

Krewson ran for mayor on a public safety platform. She pledged to hire 200 more police officers and seek pay raises for them in an effort to combat the city's high crime rate. She sought the endorsement of the St. Louis Police Officers Association. While Krewson embraced some police reforms during her tenure, she argued that starving the department of funds was not the way to institute change.

St. Louis' crime problem has since worsened. With more than 260 killings last year, the homicide rate was at its highest in 50 years, mirroring rising violent crime in cities across the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

But from Jones' perspective, more law enforcement is not the answer.

Jones has promised sweeping changes in the way St. Louis cuts down on crime, striving for the kind of institutional public safety reforms that, if realized, could shift the trajectory of police operations and social services for years to come. It's yet to be seen whether Jones' moves prove effective, but they're likely to be reviewed for years to evaluate whether a progressive approach to crime is one to model or reject.

Jones joins a national "defund" movement of progressive city leaders who have delved into experiments with cutting police budgets in cities like Austin, Texas; New York City; San Francisco; Baltimore; and Minneapolis, although some efforts have been stalled by pushback from critics.

Jones has already acted to divert some public safety money away from police and jails and toward other goals.

On her first day in office, the mayor supported a proposed budget that zeroed out funding for one of the city's two jails, the Medium Security Institution, also known as the workhouse, for a projected saving of $7.8 million. About $1.3 million of that is targeted for social workers and other services aimed at helping jail detainees return to society.

And this week Jones supported a cut of $4 million out of the police department's $171 million budget for the next fiscal year. That money is now earmarked for affordable housing, a victims' services program, homeless aid and civil rights litigators.

"What we've been doing doesn't work," Jones said in announcing the proposed budget, which still needs approval by the Board of Aldermen. "This revised budget will start St. Louis on a new path to tackling some of the root causes of crime."

The Post-Dispatch spoke this week with two people Jones has tasked with making these changes and other public safety priorities a reality: Interim Public Safety Director Daniel Isom, a former St. Louis police chief, and his senior adviser, former St. Louis police Sgt. Heather Taylor.

Both say their breadth of experience will help them aid a mayor intent on a new approach to a crime problem that's weighed on St. Louis for decades.

The Direction Of The Country

Isom started as a rank-and-file St. Louis police officer in 1988 and worked his way up through St. Louis city ranks over 20 years.

He was appointed chief in October 2008 during a tumultuous time for the department.

His predecessor, Joe Mokwa, abruptly retired as questions mounted about his role in a scandal involving the department's contract with a towing company. The department also faced budget cuts caused by the Great Recession, a rising homicide rate and a lack of community trust following a series of misconduct cases against officers.

But Isom's time was a relatively calm one for the police force.

During his four-year tenure, the city's homicide total fell from 167 to 112. He emphasized data-driven policing and contracted with researchers at the University of Missouri-St. Louis to analyze crime statistics to develop focused, hotspot policing strategies, despite some resistance to shifting officer schedules.

Upon retiring as chief, Isom used his doctorate in criminology to become a professor and researcher at UMSL. There he co-authored research into policing, including a study reviewing St. Louis police shootings.

Isom again rose to prominence in the wake of protests after the police shooting of Michael Brown.

Gov. Jay Nixon appointed Isom to his cabinet as the director of public safety in 2014, just weeks after Brown's death. Isom was then appointed by the governor to the Ferguson Commission, the high-profile group of leaders tasked with preparing recommendations for change after the Ferguson protests.

Recently, Isom requested a two-year leave of absence from his current role as director of the Regional Justice Information Service Commission to serve as interim public safety director. The commission provides information technology and data services to government and criminal justice agencies.

Isom said it was Jones' agenda to change public safety that convinced him to return to city politics.

"I do think it's a significant shift, but that's the direction that our country is going in," Isom told the Post-Dispatch. "For many, many years we've had this law-and-order approach, this tough-on-crime approach and there was very little emphasis on prevention and intervention."

Isom said he hopes the city can find a better balance between supporting the criminal justice system by holding people accountable for crime and offering social services that can aid in relieving the issues that may contribute to it.

"There must be a balance," he said. "I think it has been tipped toward policing and the criminal justice system so far and that the other parts of rehabilitation, investment in communities and investment in people, in terms of trying to change their life conditions, that portion of the strategy had always been minimized."

Although Isom's position is temporary for now, he will be tasked with overseeing early efforts to fulfill some of Jones' top campaign promises: Closing one of two city jails, improving city 911 service and reducing the homicide rate.

Isom said he plans to continue his focus on data in reviewing the police department's operations. He said he also hopes to use his experience researching police shootings to make the department's investigations into use of force more independent. He's already worked to hire a few more 911 police dispatchers and said he supports combining city fire and police 911 centers to improve service. He hopes to support the mayor's plans to integrate social services with police patrols.

He said Jones' first step to cut $4 million from the police budget, about a 2.3% reduction coming mostly from vacant officer salaries, shows her shift in priorities, but won't stop the city from fighting violent crime, as he hopes to make the department more efficient and focused on the most serious offenses.

"We've had an overemphasis on law enforcement as a solution," Isom said. "I've talked about it throughout my tenure as police chief, that law enforcement is not the solution. The solution is investing in people, investing in communities, investing in families."

Raising Her Hand

Heather Taylor distinctly remembers having to raise her hand to speak at a St. Louis police commanders meeting.

Taylor at the time was a sergeant in the police homicide division and the outspoken president of the Ethical Society of Police, a longtime St. Louis police organization representing mostly Black officers that fights against discrimination in policing.

In that role, Taylor never shied away from a fight.

She wasn't afraid to call out what she saw as racism or discriminatory policies in the department. She called for several officers accused of misconduct to resign, be fired or be criminally charged, including former Officer Jason Stockley, who remained on the force for years while he was investigated for a fatal 2011 shooting of a Black man, Anthony Lamar Smith.

Taylor told CBS News in 2019 that she believed there were white supremacists on the force.

"I still believe that," she said.

Taylor said she often got pushback in police circles for breaking the "blue wall of silence" and was repeatedly threatened with punishment for speaking to media or posting on social media.

"I was told that a social media policy was written specifically for me to stop speaking out," she said.

A superior required that Taylor raise her hand during commanders' meetings to speak on behalf of Ethical Society members, something she saw as another way to quiet her for criticizing the department's top brass.

Taylor retired in September after 20 years with St. Louis police. She was intending to go to law school to pursue civil rights law when she got the call from Jones to work as senior adviser to the director of public safety.

"I gladly accepted because you really can't make a lot of change unless you address policy and procedures," Taylor said. "Her goals were to reimagine public safety and for us to get away from the old ways that just weren't working."

Taylor thinks a goal of getting more social workers involved in the police department could reduce the strain on officers. She recalled once spending nearly eight hours trying to get resources for a victim's family trying to get home to Indiana.

Taylor's former organization, the Ethical Society, was among the first groups to oppose Jones' cut to the police budget. The police department's bargaining unit, the St. Louis Police Officers Association, also criticized the effort.

" St. Louis city has a 'right now problem' relative to violent crime, so any measure that does not include adequate police staffing is misguided," the Ethical Society said in a statement.

Taylor said she expects Jones' efforts to have critics.

"It's not going to happen overnight and some people aren't going to like it," she said. "But I think it will work."

In her first few days as a top city adviser, Taylor said she's sometimes struck by her shift in position from agitator to among the city's leadership.

"I sit at a table now with our mayor, the chief of staff, the public safety director and they're asking for my input," Taylor said. "Now I have a voice."

(c)2021 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Special Projects