Why St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden May Have the Toughest Job in America

Updated | Most people don't see a double homicide on their first day on the job. 

But most people aren't John Hayden, the new police chief for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Hayden took the reins on New Year's Day as his department, and the city as a whole, was dealing with some of its most intense chaos in a generation. St. Louis ended last year mired in scandals over police corruption and racial tensions with law enforcement, and with its highest homicide count since 1994.

He might just be entering into the hardest job in America, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s editorial board members put it. “Bring a broom,” they advised whoever should win the role.

But the 30-year veteran of the department isn't afraid of cleaning up a mess. He speaks with cheery nonchalance, more natural around reporters and critics than his predecessor, interim chief Lawrence O'Toole. His biggest break from the past, though, is his willingness to criticize fellow officers for the racial divides and uproar of the past few years. 

02_06_JohnHayden Police Chief John Hayden, of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, stands in front of Jimmie Edwards, director of public safety. Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Polaris

“In some ways, I think law enforcement nationwide has been a contributor to the tension that’s there,” he told Newsweek in a recent phone interview. “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.”

Fury over policing tactics is an American crisis, with protests and upheaval following each acquittal in a major police-involved shooting case. But ever since the 2014 crisis in Ferguson, this story has been told again and again in the St. Louis region. 

Three years after the Ferguson grand jury decision, a judge acquitted St. Louis police Officer Jason Stockley, a white man, in the fatal shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man. Prosecutors had alleged Stockley planted a gun in Smith's car, and they tried to prove premeditated murder with a dashcam tape featuring Stockley saying he was "going to kill this motherfucker, don't you know it." 

01_29_Police_StLouis In September 2017, police respond to demonstrators who were protesting the acquittal of former St. Louis police Officer Jason Stockley in the fatal shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011. GETTY/Scott Olson

After the acquittal last September, fierce protests erupted, setting the city ablaze for weeks and then months. Thousands marched, hundreds were jailed, dozens were injured. And in the center, once again, was a police department that didn't know how to handle national scrutiny. 

Hayden won't be leaving those months of tension in the pasthe'll be walking right into a postmortem. "I’m starting with my commanders, and we’re looking at what went well and what didn’t go well during the protests," he said. "You know the next people I’m reaching out to? The protest leadership."

It's a stark contrast to his predecessor, O’Toole, who made headlines during the Stockley verdict protests when officers in his department began the chant: “Whose streets? Our streets,” repurposing a phrase the protesters had used. The next day, O'Toole responded to the pushback by saying, "We're in control. This is our city, and we're going to protect it."

He added, "Police owned tonight." 

Hayden, instead, aims to strike a balance, cracking down on crime while trying to alleviate racial tensions and offering transparency, something he did when he led investigations in the department's internal affairs division, which led to the terminations, prosecutions and even convictions of his peers. 

"Hayden supports cops, but he also understands that they don't always get it right," St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson told Newsweek. 

Hayden has another crisis to deal with: the city's highest homicide count in over 20 years. Two hundred and five people were killed in 2017, bringing the murder rate to an estimated 65.83 homicides for every 100,000 people, more than 12 times the national average. This will likely make St. Louis the murder capital of the U.S. for the fourth year in a row. (Official statistics from the FBI are not out until September.) 

Hayden couldn't catch a break from the bloodbath for even one day. He was welcomed to his role with a double homicide that had "all the makings of drug-related activity," he said at the time. Two black men were killed, following a grim trend from the previous year, in which 192 victims of the city's 205 homicides were black. 

Many of the city’s violent crimes and homicides can be attributed to disputes over drug deals, often heroin, cocaine or marijuana. But the roots of the rampant drug-related activity, Hayden said, live deep in the city’s history as one of the most segregated cities in the country, with few opportunities for poor and black communities.

02_06_JohnHayden_parade St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden walks with Jimmie Edwards, director of public safety, as they carry a banner in the city's Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade. Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Polaris

He'll be coming up against forces that have overpowered cops in his position for years. "We can't police our way out of this situation," Krewson said. 

The crux of Hayden's tenure will be his role as a compassionate but tough figurehead for the department. He will have to be a "healing voice," as Beth Huebner, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, put it. “The nation is watching St. Louis," she told Newsweek.

Much to the chagrin of St. Louisans, who have even suggested renaming the city in an effort to rebrand it, these have become the ways St. Louis has entered the national spotlight: police-involved shootings, protests, alleged use of excessive force, high crime rates.

01_29_StLouis Police confront demonstrators protesting the acquittal of former St. Louis police Officer Jason Stockley. GETTY/Scott Olson

What Hayden aims for, in the long run, is an entirely different association for the city’s name. He wants St. Louis to stand out as a troubled city that settled its problems with community policing rather than a crackdown.

He said those efforts are going to start small, with face-to-face meetings. He wants to make sure he recognizes the people he's trying to help.

There's one story Hayden said he can't stop thinking about. His daughter told him about a little boy who could never go out and play because his parents feared there would be a shooting anytime he walked out the door. 

"If this little kid gets the opportunity to get out and play for a while, then that’s a success to me," he said.

Update: This article originally cited information provided by the director of the Department of Public Safety of St. Louis that was incorrect. The director said 204 of last year's 205 homicide victims were black. The correct breakdown, as provided by the police department, is 192 black victims, one Hispanic victim and 12 white victims.

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