Originally published at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday. Story last updated Thursday with John Hayden's age.
ST. LOUIS — Police Chief John Hayden announced Wednesday he will retire in February after four years leading the region’s largest police force, ending a tenure marked by events that repeatedly thrust the department into the national spotlight.
“This decision was carefully and prayerfully considered by myself and my family and we all believe that it is time to pass the proverbial baton,” Hayden said at a news conference Wednesday. “I want everyone to know that serving as the 35th police chief of the city of St. Louis has been an honor of a lifetime.”
Hayden, 58, will retire on Feb. 23, 2022, the 35th anniversary of his employment with St. Louis police. St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones said Wednesday that her administration will conduct a nationwide search in the coming months to find his replacement.
Hayden was appointed by former Mayor Lyda Krewson in December 2017 to lead the department’s approximately 1,200 officers. Former police Chief Sam Dotson had retired months earlier on her first day in office.
Hayden won the job after a seven-month nationwide search, the formation of a citizen advisory committee and a series of forums to gather public feedback.
Before becoming chief, he was commander of the North Patrol Division, oversaw the department’s Internal Affairs and held roles in Vice and Narcotics, the Detective Unit and the Police Academy. He also served as an aide to former Chief Joe Mokwa.
In 2017 forums where Hayden made his case to become chief, he emphasized his deep knowledge of St. Louis and said he hoped to improve community relationships and planned to hold officers accountable for misconduct.
But Hayden has not had a peaceful tenure.
Under his leadership, the department has weathered officer deaths, high-profile police misconduct investigations, a pandemic and a record-breaking 2020 homicide surge.
Major events have included:
• The fatal shooting of St. Louis police Officer Katlyn Alix by a fellow St. Louis officer, Nathaniel Hendren, in January 2019. Hendren pleaded guilty in March to involuntary manslaughter and admitted that he shot Alix in a Russian roulette-style game at his apartment while he was on duty.
• 130 local protests following a national call for police reform after the death in 2020 of George Floyd during an arrest in Minneapolis. The most violent night on June 1, 2020, culminated in looters shooting four St. Louis police officers and killing David Dorn, a retired St. Louis police captain working security at a pawn shop. Hayden gave an emotional press conference to the media that night. “Thank God they’re alive,” Hayden said, clearly angered by the attacks on his officers. “Can we make some sense out of this?” After the shootings the department’s union, the St. Louis Police Officers Association, issued a public letter that they had lost confidence in Hayden’s leadership.
• The death of St. Louis police Officer Tamarris L. Bohannon in the line of duty in August 2020. Bohannon, 29, was responding to a shooting call in the Tower Grove South neighborhood when he was shot by a man barricaded in a home. Hayden called Bohannon the “epitome of a great officer.”
• Three St. Louis police officers went on trial this year after being accused of involvement with the beating and arrest of St. Louis police Detective Luther Hall when he was undercover during a September 2017 protest — before Hayden was chief. One officer, Dustin Boone, was found guilty in June on a federal civil rights charge. Hall settled a civil lawsuit against city police for $5 million earlier this year.
Hayden on Wednesday said his shake-up of the department command personnel, including those leading the department’s internal misconduct investigations, was his greatest accomplishment as chief.
He said his greatest challenge in the role continues to be the difficulty hiring new police officers.
“We’re competing for the best officers in the region and they can go other places and make more money for less demands,” he said.
Hayden for years lobbied the Missouri Legislature to remove the requirement that St. Louis police officers live in the city, which, he argued, was a barrier to officer recruitment and retention. In September 2020, Gov. Mike Parson signed a bill into law that lifted the requirement for St. Louis police and firefighters until at least 2023.
A violent year
Hayden was also chief through one of the most violent years on record for the city.
The city’s homicide rate last year topped at least the previous 50 years, amid a national surge in violent crime in large U.S. cities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hayden at the time called the summer of 2020 “more demanding than I’ve seen as a St. Louis police officer in 33½ years.”
So far in 2021, homicides have returned to slightly below pre-pandemic levels in the city.
Hayden’s crime-fighting strategy centered on an approach soon dubbed “Hayden’s rectangles.” The strategy focused police attention on a broad area in north St. Louis, roughly in the shape of a rectangle, that Hayden said was responsible for the majority of the city’s homicides, carjackings and other acts of violence. In 2018, he announced an expansion of the strategy, targeting downtown and a section around Cherokee Street.
The strategy came under scrutiny for a lack of accurate data supporting the selection of the areas. Ultimately, it did not create significant improvement in the city’s homicide rate.
More recently Hayden changed the “rectangles” approach to focus on what he calls “mission zones,” smaller areas of increased enforcement that can be changed more quickly in response to upticks in crime.
Overall, the city’s violent crime incident totals fell about 5% and property crime dropped about 6% during Hayden’s first three full years as chief, compared with the three years prior to his appointment, according to the department’s statistics.
The homicide rate, however, increased by 14% and homicide clearance rates have remained relatively low during Hayden’s tenure. The clearance rate ranged from about 30% to 45% of cases considered closed by circumstances including charges or death of a suspect, compared with national averages of around 60%.
The St. Louis Police Officers Association was a frequent critic of Hayden, and the organization’s business manager Jeff Roorda repeated the union’s complaints Wednesday.
”Speaking for myself, I really, really hope that John Hayden’s final act as police chief will be to apologize to St. Louis for the epic failures that have characterized his time at the top of this department,” Roorda said in a statement. “Violent crime exploded, police officers left in record numbers, and when it was time to stand up for his officers, he always ran the other way.”
Roorda continued that the city desperately “needs a bold, collaborative leader willing to work with every single stakeholder” to fight violent crime.
St. Louis’ other prominent police organization, the Ethical Society of Police, represents many Black officers in the region and was less critical.
The group called Hayden’s tenure “a source of inspiration for us all.”
”So many of our members have been mentored by Chief Hayden or otherwise influenced by him in a meaningful way,” the group said in a statement.
Hayden’s announcement comes a little more than a month after the resignation of St. Louis County Chief Mary Barton. She left the county on July 30 after 15 months leading that department. Barton accepted a $290,000 payout to settle a discrimination complaint she filed against the county.
A national search
Jones said Wednesday she will conduct a nationwide search that will include local candidates. Jones emphasized she will search for a chief who will fit her administration’s view on public safety.
Since the beginning of her tenure in April, Jones has emphasized the need for more social workers and diversion programs as a response to some 911 calls, rather than police officers alone. She supported cutting the police budget by $4 million and diverting the money to social programs this fiscal year.
Jones said the selection process will include an online resident survey now available on the city’s website and public town hall meetings in October.
At least the previous four city police chiefs were promoted from within the department’s ranks.
In retirement, Hayden says he plans to spend more time with his family. He and his wife, Michelle, have been married for 28 years. They have three daughters, with a grandson on the way.
”I’ve had a pager or cellphone for probably well over 20 years,” Hayden said. “I’ve had to wake up in the middle of the night to deal with something. So now I’ll probably wake up and hear things and think someone is looking for me, but it’ll just be my dog barking.”