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By Jake Wagman
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS - Police Chief Joe Mokwa took office seven years ago as a polished veteran who was as much at ease shaking hands at a neighborhood meeting as slapping cuffs on a suspect.
His personal touch and political savvy have helped him defuse a string of stormy incidents, from missing money in the police evidence locker to officers using confiscated World Series tickets for personal use - not to mention the notoriety of seeing St. Louis named the nation's "most dangerous city."
Each time, Mokwa has emerged unscathed, his place as the department's civic ambassador firmly intact. Mokwa's trim mustache and easy manner are fixtures at charity events, and his name comes up frequently as a potential candidate for mayor.
But now Mokwa is hip-deep in a scandal that has opened up his relationship with his estranged daughter for public consumption. Mayor Francis Slay, one of his closest allies, questions Mokwa's forthrightness. Federal investigators are examining why a towing company that does business with the department allowed Aimie Mokwa and an untold number of officers to take extended "test drives" of formerly impounded vehicles.
In a news conference Tuesday, a contrite yet defiant Mokwa insisted he has "done nothing wrong," but declined to take questions.
Left unanswered is what many at police headquarters want to know: Will Mokwa's Teflon finally wear off?

'HE WANTS TO BE LIKED'
Mokwa, 59, grew up in Bellefontaine Neighbors and graduated from Riverview Gardens High School. His father was a union pipefitter. His mother worked at McDonnell Douglas Corp.
Mokwa joined the police department in 1971, taking a measured path to the top: detective, chief of detectives, assistant chief and, in 2001, chief, besting several other candidates with lengthy résumés of their own.
One of his first actions was to shift 30 officers to patrol duty. The following year, the city showed an improvement in its murder rate.
Few question Mokwa's devotion to the badge. He's been known to call victims of crime directly. He is among the first on the scene when an officer is seriously injured. Last year, while walking his dog early one morning, Mokwa personally ran down a man suspected of stealing from cars in the neighborhood.
"Aren't we safe anywhere?" Mokwa joked at the time.
The quip was textbook Mokwa.
Through his career, the chief has earned the reputation of someone who, while not necessarily seeking publicity, doesn't shy away from it.
In 1978, a Globe-Democrat piece showed Mokwa and his police partner talking to residents as part of their daily beat. The next year, a news photo showed then-Detective Mokwa watching over a table of cash and cocaine he helped seize during a raid.
Mokwa is sensitive about his image, says former Police Board president Mary Nelson, which can hinder his effectiveness.
"At the end of the day, he is very concerned about public perception," Nelson said. "He's like everyone else - he wants to be liked."
That's perhaps why the latest controversy has hit the chief hard.
Mokwa initially told the Board of Police Commissioners that he knew nothing about St. Louis Metropolitan Towing - which has a lucrative contract with the department - providing cars to officers, and selling Mokwa's daughter vehicles at well-below wholesale value.
But in 2002, Aimie Mokwa crashed a Dodge Neon owned by Parks Auto Sales, an arm of the towing company, in south St. Louis. The St. Louis Police Department wrote an accident report and noted that Parks was the owner of the car.
Mokwa said Tuesday that he had been aware of the finding, but "failed to recognize the significance" of the information at the time.
He said he was distracted by his daughter's ongoing domestic and substance abuse problems, which culminated in 2007 with an arrest in Warren County, one that provided a mugshot of Aimie Mokwa with a large bruise covering the side of her face.
The chief said Tuesday that he is disengaged from his daughter's life.
On Monday, current Police Board President Chris Goodson - who has enjoyed an amicable relationship with Mokwa until now - told reporters he felt the chief's credibility was in question and that the board would meet "in the very near future" to discuss possible discipline.
Slay - who has steadfastly stood by Mokwa, even as the city's murder rate climbed this year - has also begun to question the chief's integrity.
Mokwa "needs to convince city residents and his own officers that he can continue to lead the police department," Slay said in a statement Tuesday. "As a parent, I can empathize with his struggles to address the many problems of a troubled offspring. But as the mayor, I find that neither my appreciation nor my empathy outweighs my judgment that the St. Louis Police Department needs strong, credible leadership."

ALLIES ALL OVER
Sailing the political currents is nothing new for the police chief in St. Louis, where the department is run by an unusual government set-up. In an arrangement that dates back to the Civil War, the city's police department is run by five commissioners, four appointed by the governor.
The mayor and aldermen have some fiscal control over the department, which means Mokwa must keep one eye on City Hall, and the other on Jefferson City - all the while staying connected to the rank-and-file officers and remaining sensitive to the public safety needs of a diverse city.
"He's got a whole lot of masters," said another former Police Board president, Mark Smith, a vice chancellor at Washington University.
Mokwa juggles the roles by cultivating allies across the city.
In 2005, Talibdin El-Amin reached out to the chief after a wave of killings had rocked the city's Mark Twain neighborhood.
Mokwa came to a neighborhood meeting to speak with residents.
"When I've called the chief to take him to task on something in our community in terms of crime, he has always responded," said El-Amin, who is now a state representative. "He's never been one to shy away from coming out and addressing people."
That type of responsiveness can be valuable currency with local elected officials, who have little actual power to compel police to take action against neighborhood nuisances or minor crimes that are the grist of everyday constituent complaints.
Those relationships may soon pay dividends, as whether Mokwa keeps his job could depend on the level of political heat.
In the past, Mokwa has weathered questions over the department's tracking of sexual assaults, and a no-confidence vote from officers.
State Rep. Margaret Donnelly, D-Richmond Heights, a candidate for state attorney general, called on the Highway Patrol to investigate the impound controversy.
Gary Wiegert, president of the St. Louis Police Officers' Association, said opinion on Mokwa within the department is split. "You have the chief's supporters who support him, and then you have many who don't like the direction the department is going," Wiegert said.
Yet Alderman Lyda Krewson, whose ward includes Mokwa's home near Forest Park, appears ready to give the benefit of the doubt. "The guy deserves respect because I've never seen him be anything but respectful to anybody else," Krewson said. "I'll give him that courtesy."

Wire Service
 
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