The Numbers Guy
Sam Dotson: The man in the middle of one of the most dynamic police departments in the country.
THE NUMBERS DON’T LIE. And they don’t make St. Louis look good. Every year, when the national crime statistics are released from the FBI, a familiar cycle starts. St. Louis gets mentioned in some “Top 10 Most Dangerous Cities in America” article on CNN or Forbes. Then comes the series of backlash articles arguing that St. Louis actually is a great place with lots of attractions and an ideal city to raise a family.
Those with an abundance of city pride take to Twitter in the vain hopes of shifting the perception of St. Louis away from being a den of violent crime. But most feel there is little that can be done to change things.
That is generally where the conversation stops. But beneath the surface, there is yet another set of trending numbers—ones that paint a different picture of the city. At the center of that trend is Sam Dotson, chief of police for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.
Dotson is a numbers kind of guy. When we speak outside of his office on a small couch, the affable 44-year-old MBA comes off sounding more like a CEO than a stereotypical cop. His conversation is rich with paradigms, strategies and alliances. He’s a St. Louis native, so he can answer the high school question with Metro High School, which Dotson says was key in shaping his vision of the city.
“When I think of St. Louis, I see a region that is diverse in race, gender, ethnicity and religion,” says Dotson, who once served as the director of operations for the City of St. Louis.” I am protective of the city and not just in a policing way. Everything I do is geared toward making St. Louis a little bit better today than it was yesterday.”
To that end, Dotson is reframing the conversation around those annual crime statistics. According to Dotson, the harsh characterization of St. Louis comes down to simple math. Unlike most cities in the United States, St. Louis’ crime statistics include only the urban core and not surrounding areas. This is due to a move that dates all the way back to 1876 when the city separated from the county and land-locked its reporting area. St. Louis is thus at a disadvantage as compared to other similar-sized urban areas in the reporting of crime. For example, St. Louis currently has around 62 square miles of reporting area, compared to Kansas City’s 319.
“If we are going to solve the issues that lead to crime in our region, then we have to think like a region,” Dotson explains. “Criminals do not recognize the borders between the city and the county, so if we are going to characterize crime, then the statistics need to reflect reality.”
Last year, Dotson formed a partnership with then St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch and brought in Richard Rosenfeld, criminologist in residence at the SLMPD, to tangibly reshape the conversation about crime in St. Louis. Together they crafted a petition to expand the city’s crime statistics to include areas of St. Louis County and submitted it to the Missouri Highway Patrol, the agency that reports statistics to the FBI. The highway patrol came back with a “no.” But, Dotson thought, at least it wasn’t a “Hell, no.”
“They didn’t completely shoot us down, so I thought I would ask them why it can’t be done,” Dotson says. “That gave Fitch and I the chance to position our case. Once the Highway Patrol understood what we were doing, they submitted our request to the FBI.”
Dotson expects that request to be processed by the FBI in the next six months. He remains optimistic at its chances, even though the petition must go to a committee and ultimately get the go-ahead from United States Attorney General Eric Holder.
Some in the city’s leadership have criticized Dotson’s petition as skewing numbers. They argue that he is just increasing the denominator to dilute the issues in the urban core. But Dotson believes that his request to the FBI will help place St. Louis on an even playing field with similar cities.
“I want St. Louis’ crime rates to be compared in the same way as Memphis, Louisville or Chattanooga,” Dotson explains. “The truth is that we live in a region so we should report as a region.” Changing the tone of how St. Louis’ crime is characterized reaches farther than civic pride or crude public relations. Dotson understands that a reputation as a dangerous city has far-reaching consequences.
“Think of all the potential employers or individuals who Google St. Louis, and all of these stories about crime and danger pop up,” he says. “That means we don’t even get the chance to have a conversation about our city. This is not about changing reality. It is about telling the truth as a region.”
Dotson’s efforts to help the city go beyond reshaping a conversation. Since he took over as chief in December of 2012, violent crime in St. Louis went down more than 10 percent from the previous year—and it’s an annual reduction rate that is twice that of the national average.
“Crime in St. Louis is going down and has been going down for the past eight years,” Dotson says. “Since 2006, our total crime rate has been cut in half.”
BEYOND THE NUMBERS While the data looks good, Dotson is anything but complacent. In his review of his first year, he wrote on his blog: “Every day, I continually remind myself, one crime is one too many, one victim is one too many. Even if we never get to zero, the numbers clearly show that we’re moving in the right direction.”
Dotson’s earnestness for improved performance has created a higher regard for St. Louis among other municipal police agencies.
“In the group of larger agencies across the country, St. Louis’ police department has leapt to the front of the pack when it comes to evidence-based policing,” says Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “We are using close to real-time data to apply resources. It is an approach that has been accelerated under Dotson.”
The evidence-based policing that Rosenfeld references is also called hot-spot policing—the process of analyzing levels of crime data, then using that data to more strategically apply resources. More patrols are performed where and when specific crimes are likely to occur and officers are given specific tasks to perform.
Hot-spot policing might seem like a no-brainer, but SLMPD is one of the few agencies in the country where the practice is business as usual. One of the major challenges is changing the way officers view their role in the community. Most of them have been used to riding the radio and reacting to crime. They are now asked to engage in proactive policing behavior.
“Police are action people,” says Dotson. “They measure success on their number of arrests, but we need to change that paradigm. It is about how many people we keep safe. If we arrest someone, then that means there was a crime and a victim. We need to rethink our role as officers to prevent crime.”
AN EARNEST RESOLVE In the face of this challenge, Dotson remains optimistic as usual. It’s a part of that CEO mindset—ask the tough questions, project a strategic vision and build alliances. It’s a mindset that has allowed the SLMPD to thrive during its most revolutionary period in generations.
Just before Dotson began as police chief, voters approved a measure to dissolve the state Board of Police Commissioners after 152 years of oversight, giving St. Louis local control of its police department. Within the last year, the SLMPD has merged with the Lambert-St. Louis Airport police force, and the nine police districts that once divided the city into units for the past 50 years were reduced to six districts.
Through it all, Dotson has not lost his resolve. He knows the problems that affect the urban core are numerous and the task at hand is larger than the SLMPD can take on alone.
“I try to approach issues with the question of what is best for St. Louis,” says Dotson. “The issues that we are dealing with in preventing crime—jobs, economics, race—are bigger than police issues. We are a region and think and we make St. Louis better when agencies think and act like a region.”
Photo credit: Portrait by Matt Kile