Nothing a Few Thousand Sit-ups Wouldn't Cure

A candidate for St. Louis sheriff wants things shaped up on his watch; plus, other St. Louis follies and foibles

After working in the St. Louis Corrections Department for seven years, about a year ago Donald Hawkins became an investigator for the city's Circuit Attorney's Office. Now he's running for sheriff in the Aug. 8 Democratic primary, against incumbent Jim Murphy, who's going for his third term. Hawkins is a long shot, what with the 60-year-old Murphy's being a veteran South Side pol, a former state representative and currently a committeeman in the vote-heavy 12th Ward.

But at least Hawkins has a couple of issues. In his view, many of the sheriff's deputies who provide security in the city's courthouses and transport prisoners from the county jail in Clayton to the city's courtrooms are out of shape, get promoted for the wrong reasons and aren't trained or tested enough.

"There is no type of physical-fitness test that's administered," says Hawkins. "You can be 4 foot tall or 7 foot tall; you can weigh 50 pounds or 500 pounds. Whether or not you're hired is determined by your political attributes. I understand the concept of patronage positions, but at some point you've got to put together some type of system that will require these guys to be physically fit. In a sense, it's a breach of security if these overweight guys have to get up and start running after people. For God's sake, are they really going to catch them?"

Hawkins' humble plan is to require that a deputy's weight be proportional to his or her height and to do that by providing access, or requiring regular visits, to the police gym at Tucker Boulevard and Spruce Street. Supervisors would fill in for deputies while they went across the street to work out during work hours. "I'd go over and work out with them, because I believe you lead by example," says the 34-year-old Hawkins.

He's not planning to fire all deputies with excessive avoirdupois. "It's not my intent to steal any food off anyone's table," says Hawkins. "I don't have an agenda that I'm going to go in and fire all these people. I like the individuals in the sheriff's department. This is not personal. This is about business and what will benefit the sheriff's department and the entire city of St. Louis."

Even if he wanted to trim some deputies from the staff, Hawkins would be limited by laws protecting patronage employees. In some respects, what with labor-law rulings, getting rid of patronage employees can be as tough as axing civil-service workers. But that doesn't mean Hawkins couldn't require certain minimal physical-fitness standards, as long as they related to the job. He could also require deputies to take written and oral tests to qualify for promotions. Promotions are now solely the sheriff's decision, based on an employee's work record, seniority and evaluations by a supervisor.

Hawkins sees the sheriff's department as a "dumping ground for political favors" where deputies are hired or promoted on the basis of political connections. It is probably the city department with the largest number of patronage employees, with close to 200. "If you're part of the clique, you can get the good positions; you can get the better salaries," says Hawkins. The North Side gets "the pacifier, not the whole bottle," when it comes to jobs and promotions, Hawkins contends, receiving just enough to keep the community quiet but not its full share.

Mike Guzy, administrative aide to Murphy (and, yes, a frequent op-ed contributor to the Post-Dispatch under the byline "M.W. Guzy"), admits that no fitness standards exist for deputies and that no written or oral "tests" are administered for promotion. But Guzy, who retired from the St. Louis Police Department after 21 years, says he's working on the fitness issue.

"This year, we're introducing a training program that accents fitness and shows them what's available in the police gym to try to encourage the deputies to keep themselves in good shape," says Guzy. New hires in the sheriff's department complete a 144-hour course at the police academy, but it's all about firearms and procedural training, he says. A physical examination is given, but it's intended to screen for health problems, not to measure physical fitness.

That's similar to the city police department, which once required an obstacle-course test for police officers, but that was done away with shortly after Chief Ron Henderson took over. The catty among St. Louis' finest claim that the inability of the hefty Henderson to complete the obstacle course in the prescribed time prompted its demise; others say the main trouble with the obstacle course was that some policemen were injured completing it as they tried to simulate climbing a fence or crawling through a pipe. Whatever the reason, more fundamental calisthenic measurements (a set number of pull-ups or sit-ups) were thrown out in court rulings in other cities that determined such tests were not "job specific" and were therefore unfair. At present, St. Louis police must only pass a physical examination.

So Hawkins' intent to introduce a fitness regimen to the sheriff's department makes sense, as do his ideas about testing standards for promotions. But with just a bit more than three weeks before election day, Hawkins may need a lot more than good ideas.

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