Open Season

Police crackdown on guns and gangs runs into Way of the Gun mentality

But not in the minds of jurors in the Johnson trial. In a stunning rebuke of police credibility, they set him free because police couldn't prove he knew they were cops. The unspoken corollary goes like this: If you don't know your pursuers are cops, it's more than OK to act as if they aren't and treat them as you would any member of a marauding rival gang.

Mokwa says the spree of shots thrown at cops is the direct result of the cops' targeting some of the city's most crime-ridden neighborhoods and routinely questioning and arresting bad guys with a history of gun violence, drug sales and gang activity. As proof, he points to the 380 illegal weapons police have seized from suspects in the past six months.

"I'm asking officers to go out at two or three in the morning and stop two or three males who we know have a history of carrying firearms," Mokwa says. "I'm asking them to go after the bad guys.... Goddamn it, they don't just wave at you and say, 'Oh, I give up -- here's my gun.'"

Mokwa's also asking them to step into a free-fire zone not entirely of their making. There's rampant vigilantism on the streets of St. Louis, an eye-for-an-eye mentality that paints a bull's-eye on every combatant.

"If they're mad at a guy on your street, they'll shoot at anybody walking around," Mokwa says.

That's exactly the deadly dynamic that surrounded the Parker shooting. Rival gangs were gunning for each other, not caring whether a person did the offending deed or not, just as long as he sported the colors that mark him as a rival. In this case, the retaliation was sparked by the shooting of a rival gang leader's five-year-old.

The results cut both ways -- a dead teenager, a critically wounded cop. But these high-profile cases are masking a downward trend in homicides. There were 148 murders in 2001; at this time last year, there had been 120. The city now has 97 homicides on file. Also lost in this murderous shuffle is this grisly truth: Of the city's 148 homicide victims in 2001, 128 were black.

That leads Elam King, a counselor who specializes in gang violence and crime-plagued communities, to ask whether the right questions are being asked -- of police and of the community at large.

"It's not so much a cop rolling up in an unmarked car but anybody rolling up," King says. "Don't nobody know who's who. Everybody thinks it's somebody getting set to pull a drive-by. But nobody's asking the question I'm asking: Why are our young men arming themselves and walking around like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday?"

Shirley Emerson, a neighborhood activist in the O'Fallon Park area, where Parker was shot and killed, recognizes that increased conflict between cops and gangbangers may be the heavy price her neighborhood has to pay for decades of neglected criminality.

"Folks are living in terror up here. It's like living in a prison. You're afraid to go out of your house," Emerson says. "Folks are sleeping on the floor, afraid they might get hit by a stray bullet. They're so afraid, and the guys know it."

This doesn't let police off the hook with regard to the issue of proper firearms training. Nationwide, cops are notorious for pumping out more rounds than suspects do, and there's been a long-standing call for police to augment their mandatory qualification shoots with more realistic combat training, gun experts say. As it stands now, police get more of an exercise in target practice than they do defensive handgun tactics.

But Mokwa is looking to change that equation. The police force now has a $100,000 handgun-combat simulator, and he's running each of his 1,100 uniformed officers through the program as fast as he can. Cops are also taking another look at nonlethal weapons, such as electric stun guns and beanbag riot guns.

"Obviously we're not going to go into a gunfight with a beanbag, but we're looking at ways to lessen the chances of conflict," he says.

Good thing. It's open season out there.

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