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Don Re Can't Fix St. Louis' Policing Problems. But He's Trying to Teach the Officers Who Will 

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click to enlarge In North Pointe, Don Re's former beat, residents are fed up with violence and death. - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • In North Pointe, Don Re's former beat, residents are fed up with violence and death.

"It was almost too much attention," Re says now. The blog, he insists, was never supposed to be any sort of behind-the-badge soapbox, and he can still hardly believe that politicians and community activists – not to mention his boss – were actually tweeting and discussing the product of his late-night boozy writing session.

"I never intended to write anything about the police department. Mostly it was just a journal on my family, to keep tabs on my life, to get a few laughs," he says. "If I've ever spent more than an hour on a blog post I'd be shocked. Most of that time would be spent just getting up to get another beer."

But Chief Dotson says he found the blog compelling.

"It was moving, it really was," he says. "He has a unique way of capturing the emotions that police officers see far too frequently. It shows a side of police officers that doesn't get portrayed at all. Police officers are human beings, they have families, children, they have emotions just like everybody else."

Many times, though, they just don't share that side. "Police officers are naturally internal people," Dotson observes.

Re started the blog in 2012, and its first year mostly chronicled the antics of raising three young kids while trying to remain (generally) sane and married. Basically, he was a daddy blogger. One early blog post, for example, concerned Re's toddler-age son asking him why he was so fat. That post was accompanied by a picture of Re – a nominally grumpy cop built like Fred Flintstone – riding his daughter's pink Barbie bicycle down the street with a madman's grin plastered on his face.

"It wasn't too often that someone I knew would read it," he admits. He seems almost bashful when estimating his early audience at around only a few hundred hits a week.

It wasn't until the Ferguson protests in 2014 that Re allowed his blog life and cop life to intersect.

Triggered by a fatal encounter between a black teenager named Michael Brown and Ferguson officer Darren Wilson, the summer protests unleashed a long-overdue reckoning between the region's various police departments and an increasingly influential coalition of residents, activists and politicians.

Although Re himself wasn't among the metro cops deployed to assist Ferguson that summer, he says he couldn't simply ignore the messages blaring at him on the TV.

"There seems to be a perception, outside of this area, that it's a war zone here, that the whole region is in shambles," he wrote in an August 19 post. "I can see how a person might think such a thing. I mean, God forbid the national media folks take their cameras outside of the immediate area where all the trouble is happening to see that life is still being lived by decent folks, even just outside of Ferguson."

Here too, Re wasn't penning polemics. He didn't weigh in on whether Michael Brown had his hands up. The writing wandered, as if following Re's own undirected musings. He wrote about the group of boys he'd spotted playing basketball against a bare rim in north city, a young mother with hungry children huddled against the cold, and following a trail of blood up to an open front door. Amid the hurt were moments of small unrehearsed kindnesses, like buying a basketball net or comping a hot meal. This was Re's vision of good police work.

"Something has to change, and change for the better," he wrote, wrapping up the post. "Shame on all of us, if we let this pass and we don't become better people for having endured it. That'd be a real shitter."

The post attracted its share of attention, and for the first time Re found himself running into cops who read the blog as well. One of Re's squad partners, a young officer named Ryan Kotaska, remembers pulling twelve-hour shifts with the grumpy older cop and discussing the blog.

"We talked all the time," Kotaska says. "A lot of it was about how you're not going to change the world by arresting someone with some dope or heroin. Especially in these neighborhoods where there's not a whole lot of good going on. Don had a way with people, the way he talked to them. There's lot to be said about making people comfortable to talk to you."

Kotaska wasn't the only one who had noticed Re's writing or his abilities as a communicator. In the days after his blog post about Marcus Johnson went viral, Re applied for and interviewed for a teaching position with the police academy. The transfer order came down in April, and just like that, Re was headed to the classroom.

West Florissant Avenue passes through the shadows of many deaths, not just Marcus Johnson's. Jutting northwest from its downtown origin, the street borders the grand sprawl of the Bellefontaine and Calvary cemeteries, where tombstones and monuments smoothed by time peek behind tree cover at the zooming traffic.

"I enjoy Calvary Cemetery. It's got a lot of history," Re says during a late December drive though the surrounding neighborhoods. "Cars crash through the fence all the time. The fence takes a beating, weekly, definitely monthly. Sometimes the drivers are drunk."

Because he's now based downtown, this is Re's first visit to this stretch of West Florissant since his transfer to the police academy.

For Re, more memories are lurking here. He recalls the hardened criminals and the drunk oafs who taught him to notice certain behaviors, patterns in the north city noise – like the out-of-place white guy who today is wearing a Blues cap and camouflage vest, leaning against a car with a tallboy of Bud Light in his hand.

"He's buying drugs, no doubt about it," Re says, taking a right turn on a residential street in Baden. "He'll say he was being profiled, but you know, a white guy with Illinois plates? That's pretty typical."

With his move to the police academy, Re doesn't get to flex those crime-spotting instincts much anymore. (Then again, he can't turn them off, either.)

Re says it wasn't his blog's success that drove his move from beat patrol to teacher. In fact, he says that a police commander had reached out in 2014 to express surprise that Re – who is also a licensed attorney and worked six years in the department's legal division – was out on the streets with the young guys in the Sixth District. Re suggests his transfer was part of the normal ebb and flow of police personnel.

"I don't really miss it, I'm not going to lie to you," he says of his old beat. "I don't really miss taking radio calls. Trust me, if I wanted to stay in the Sixth District, I could have stayed."

The Sixth District patrol is no easy assignment. Baden, which had been Re's primary beat, comprises little more than a square mile of real estate, but still managed to register more than 50 murders since 2008.

North city isn't all wasteland, though. Just one neighborhood over, in North Pointe, Re remarks on the tidy houses and well-kept lawns.

But even a nicely maintained neighborhood like North Pointe must contend with the area's violence. A dozen or so of those tidy lawns bear signs that read, "We Must Stop Killing Each Other."

"Honestly, I think it's ridiculous that we have to have signs like that," Re says as he drives past. "To me it just seems like it's more talk, and I'm tired of talk."

Re parks at Gregg's Bar and Grill, his usual lunch spot during his days patrolling north city. The interior is buzzing with chit-chat from its blue-collar customers, and the owner, a towering man in a button-down shirt, clasps Re on the shoulder like an absent old friend.

"Last night," the owner says, "at about 6:05, we heard six shots,"

"Six shots?" Re says, chuckling, as if acting out a familiar bit. "That's not too bad, not too bad."

For Re, places like Gregg's remind him of the camaraderie between officer and citizen, the kind of interactions that might be more common if not for the spread of police brutality videos and nationwide protests.

In the 1990s, before Re entered the police academy, Rodney King's beating in Los Angeles raised similar tensions. Still, the scrutiny that officers faced day-to-day on the job was nothing compared to the criticism of the present, with its ubiquitous camera phones and online commentary.

The adjustment has not been easy.

"Older policemen, we're a very funny group. Very naturally defensive, we don't take accusations well, we don't like to be told what to do," he says. "But you get this 'everyone is against us' mindset. We should remember, especially these young policeman, that most of the people out here respect the job you do. Don't fuck it up if you can help it."

It's a difficult mindset to maintain, especially for officers who don't yet have the street smarts it's taken Re years to learn. He's seeing officers burning out on frustration, attaining levels of crankiness in two years previously only reached after fifteen grinding on the force.

That's not to say Re is an apologist for the police department. ("We fuck up, we do," he says.) But Re is faced with preparing the next generation of St. Louis officers, and they won't have the luxury of learning slowly – not when any mistake could be live-streamed or uploaded to YouTube.

"The trainees understand the new environment of policing, the riots, all the kind of protesting – that's just something they know is going to be part of their careers. I think they're more nervous about doing the wrong thing than I was when I came in."

That was more than seventeen years ago, but for Re, it feels like a bygone era.

"It was a bigger joke when I was in the academy," he says. "The old guys would say, 'Whatever you learn in the academy is a bunch of bullshit; you come out here and we'll teach you how to be a policeman.'"

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