'A Skid That St. Louis Has Never Seen' Could Be in City's Future, Advocate Warns

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James Clark of Better Family Life says St. Louis could be headed for trouble. - DOYLE MURPHY
James Clark of Better Family Life says St. Louis could be headed for trouble.

A leader of one of St. Louis' top anti-violence organizations says the metro area is headed for a catastrophic future if nothing is done.

"I believe we have less than eighteen months before we hit a major skid, a skid that St. Louis has never seen before," says James Clark, vice president of Better Family Life.

Clark was one of the featured speakers at an afternoon news conference today at the federal courthouse downtown. A who's who of law enforcement and elected officials were on hand to announce local and federal grants totaling $416,000 for Better Family Life. The celebrated nonprofit runs an array of anti-violence programs, including the dangerous work of sending mediators in to diffuse potentially violent conflicts before the shooting begins.

Clark says the money will help the organization hire a handful of mediators and outreach workers, but the need is great and time is short. He says he really needs about fifteen more mediators and another 50 outreach workers, who do everything from assessing families' needs to working with drug addicts.

Clark is regarded by some in law enforcement as a soothsayer of crime trends.

"When James tell you that in the next eighteen months we're at a tipping point, you need to listen to him," St. Louis County police Chief Jon Belmar says.

Belmar's detectives have spent the past two days investigating one of the county's worst mass killings in recent memory. Five people were gunned down  in an apartment in an abandoned complex in an unincorporated part of north county. Police have identified the victims as Derrick Penny, 54; James Penny, 54; Rodney Holt, 37; Rondall Mullin, 65, and Ronald Brewster Jr., 40.

Investigators are still trying to piece together what happened, but Belmar says it seems to have involved narcotics.

The killings came during a violent Independence Day weekend with nearly twenty shootings. In the city, there were three shootings, six stabbings and six robberies reported solely from Sunday into Monday morning, according to police. One of the stabbings, an attack in Gravois Park, was fatal — the city's 95th homicide of the year.

Officials at this afternoon's news conference say police and prosecutors will continue to chase down crimes that have happened, but it is through partnerships with governments, law enforcement, the business community and organizations such as Better Family Life that they'll be able to head off the violence before it happens.

The U.S. Attorney's Office, the Missouri Attorney General, St. Louis Crime Commission (the nonprofit behind the St. Louis CrimeStoppers tips line) and city and county police departments are all working with Better Family Life.

"We know that dealing with these problems on the front end pays dividends," Attorney General Eric Schmitt says. He points to efforts such as knocking down vacant buildings and cleaning up alleys and other blighted areas.

Clark says his dire forecast for St. Louis' future comes from looking at the metro area through a national lens. Corporations don't move here, he says, and St. Louis is missing out on conventions — all because of the crime and violence, he says.

"We have been naive for a very long time," Clark adds.

But he says he sees hope in the alliance of partners willing to work on the problem.

"Everything that needs to be said, we've already said," Clark says. "Everything we need to hear, we've already heard. This is a time that calls for action."

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at [email protected] or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.

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