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St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom to retire, take post at UMSL
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St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom to retire, take post at UMSL

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ST. LOUIS • Chief Dan Isom has designed an office for himself inside the new police headquarters in which he will never sit.

Isom, 45, announced his retirement Monday from the police department before his soon-to-be co-workers at the University of Missouri-St. Louis' criminology department. He made the news of his retirement, the subject of rumors for days, official at a news conference at the university's J.C. Penney Building.

He said his last day as top cop will be Jan. 1, when he will join the teaching staff of his alma mater.

The Board of Police Commissioners may hold an emergency meeting Wednesday to start the process of naming a new chief, with the goal being to have a new chief announced next month, said Richard Gray, president of the board.

The news comes at a historic time for the department. It's on the precipice of a move from the headquarters building where it has been based for 90 years and a citywide vote next month could return it to local control for the first time since the Civil War.

It also comes at a time when the Board of Police Commissioners and mayor's office has put added pressure on Isom to reduce a rise in aggravated assaults with a firearm.

But Isom insisted in an interview Monday afternoon with the Post-Dispatch at the Goody Goody Diner in north St. Louis that he's passed up other job opportunities and is taking this one on his own terms. He said he has enjoyed teaching as an adjunct professor as much as developing policing strategies.

"How can I continue to be a part of this department and continue to do what I love to do? This makes that possible," Isom said, after shaking hands with well-wishers who recognized him out of uniform in a beige suit and tie. "I feel it's time."

The UMSL job, a one-year appointment with a $105,000 salary, allows him to stay based in St. Louis.

He said he will receive a pension of about $62,000, which is about 48 percent of salary as chief. He said he also will receive a $108,000 lump sum from the pension system he has paid into since he began his career with the department in 1988.

Isom's departure comes at a critical time for Mayor Francis Slay, who is hoping to regain control of the police department from the state in next month's election. Isom said he will be speaking in favor of local control of the department as the election approaches.

"It will be a positive change for the city because we will have more say in the police department," Isom said. "People perceive that under this structure, they are not in control of this department, and that's important.

"People need to feel like we are accountable. And we would be more accountable in that system? Probably."

A LOOK BACK

Isom became the city's 33rd chief of police Oct. 6, 2008, 20 years after joining the department.

Isom was special projects assistant to then-Chief Joe Mokwa when he was named to the top post.

He has enjoyed a relatively calm tenure at the helm. Mokwa resigned after a Post-Dispatch investigation revealed irregularities in the relationship between the department and a towing company with a city contract.

"Most people would agree that the department was in a state of chaos at that time," Isom said. "We just had a terrible audit, crime was on the rise, there were a lot of scandals and we were in a financial crisis."

Isom took credit Monday for resolving the audit's issues, managing the budget and "attacking" integrity issues.

But Isom said he wishes he could have reduced crime even more than the 30 percent it has dropped since he became chief.

"But I've got to say we've moved the needle quite a bit in a positive direction," he said.

Part of that decline in crime statistics included Isom's push in late 2009 to count multiple vehicle larcenies as one crime in some cases.

The counting method — in which multiple car break-ins that happen within the same time, date and place are counted as one crime — is in accordance with the FBI's national crime counting procedures.

But Isom ordered the department to abide by the rule more consistently without notifying the public or keeping track of how much it affected crime statistics at a time when vehicle larcenies were driving up overall crime rates.

He said his darkest moments have been dealing with the deaths of police officers.

"That would make you want to quit," he said. "It drains you because it's so emotional and you're full of such a sense of responsibility for officers' lives. You always think, 'What should I have been doing better as a leader?'"

Isom noted that he had a five-year contract, which expires next year. And the career of a police chief in a major city lasts three to five years on average.

"This job really takes a toll on you," he said. "You've got to keep your energy level up constantly, and you can never be off-duty. Every day, every hour, you're concerned about what's going on in the city of St. Louis."

Isom has recently been working more closely with his alma mater, as he has invited criminologists to study the department's policing strategies to determine which are the most successful.

Isom holds a bachelor's, master's and a Ph.D. in criminology and criminal justice from UMSL.

LOOKING AHEAD

Slay lauded Isom and said his exodus will leave a vacuum in the police department. A new chief could be named in as soon as 30 days, should the Board of Police Commissioners act swiftly.

There are about 22 candidates to chose from, as state law requires the chief be chosen among those with the rank of captain or above.

Slay is one of five members of the police board — though Gov. Jay Nixon has left one of the positions vacant for months — who will name the next chief.

Gray, president of police board, said he learned Monday morning of Isom's plans to leave.

"What I love about this is he's going to UMSL, so he's not going to be disconnected from the department," he said.

Slay and Gray said they had put pressure on Isom to reduce gun crime in the city. They said Isom's departure has nothing to do with that, and that they have been pleased with his actions to address the problem.

Gray and Slay said they had candidates in mind for chief but wouldn't name names. Among the potential candidates is Capt. Sam Dotson, whom Slay tapped as his director of operations last year.

Before his departure as the city's top cop, Isom said he wants to finalize the plans for the department's new headquarters, so that construction is ready to begin when he leaves.

Isom said there are plenty of qualified candidates to replace him, and take up the desk in the office he designed.

"I'm sure I'll come back and look at it," he said.

Then, he'll be Dr. Isom.

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