On the night of Friday, September 25, Chris Sanna walked out of Busch Stadium, probably for the last time.
He and his brothers had just taken their mother to a Cardinals game. It was her 60th birthday. Sanna, a 43-year-old military veteran from House Springs, was departing early with his girlfriend in the ninth inning because he had to work the next morning.
Around 10:30 p.m. the couple headed east down Walnut Street and toward the Old Cathedral parking lot to fetch their car. That's when a short man with long dreadlocks sprung from an idling vehicle and demanded their valuables.
Sanna's girlfriend handed over her purse. The robber pulled a handgun. The couple tried to flee, but the assailant shot Sanna in the back. As the former soldier lay on the ground, the man rifled through his pockets, reportedly saying, "Bitch, give me all your stuff."
The bullet punctured Sanna's lungs and liver, and also severed part of his spine, paralyzing him. Doctors now say he may never walk again. A suspect — 31-year-old Kilwa C. Jones of the Gravois Park neighborhood — has already been arrested and charged for the act. Sanna's mother says she's relieved Jones can't victimize anyone else.
But Sanna surely won't be the last victim.
Crime in the city of St. Louis is rising. At the end of August, aggravated assaults were up 18 percent over last year. Robberies were up 36 percent.
Most alarmingly, homicides were up 60 percent — and this in a metropolis that last year suffered the nation's highest homicide rate among cities with more than 100,000 people, according to new U.S. Department of Justice statistics.
St. Louis is not alone in seeing a spike. In Milwaukee, murders are reportedly up 76 percent. Baltimore, Washington, D.C., New Orleans and Kansas City have all posted double-digit percent increases in this category.
Yet the city of St. Louis is on pace to hit 200 murders this year — a grim total not seen here in two decades. And the blame game has begun.
Chief of Police Sam Dotson is accusing circuit judges of being too lenient on dangerous criminals. Aldermen criticize Mayor Francis Slay for lacking a coherent strategy against crime — and are threatening to block funding for a new football stadium until he gets serious. The mayor, in turn, points out that legislation to hire more officers has been languishing in the board of aldermen for nearly a year now. And the cops we do have are either too aggressive or not aggressive enough, depending on whom you ask.
Meanwhile, the body count rises.
So what does the hard data say? Myths are many, and they cling stubbornly, but the actual data is important. Only by finding a common base of fact can we take a sober look at the problem — and then address it intelligently.
Forget the political posturing for a moment. Here are ten important facts about St. Louis' murder problem. Not all are politically correct. Not all point to easy solutions. But all are demonstrably true.
1. We’ve Been Here Before
The worst year on record for homicides in St. Louis was 1993, when the city saw 267 victims. That's more than what's anticipated for this year.
True, the city was also more populous back then, with about 387,000 inhabitants, compared to 317,000 today. So to meaningfully compare then and now, you have to look not at the raw number of victims, but at the ratio of victims per residents.
Even by that measure, the early '90s were worse.
In 1993 the city's homicide rate was 69 victims per 100,000 people, according to the DOJ. Last year, the city's rate was 50. This year, we may reach a rate of 63. That would be the highest in more than twenty years. It's a tragic number, but it's not exactly unprecedented.
Nor can we be sure that this year isn't just a temporary bump. Since 1998 the city's homicide rate has changed direction ten times, falling a total of 40 points and rising a total of 57.
That's a net rise, and it demands a response. Yet it doesn't totally clarify where we're headed — or for how long.
2. City Homicides Are Highly Concentrated
For years, researchers have observed how crimes tend to cluster on a map. But even Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who regularly consults with city police, was surprised when he recently crunched the numbers from 2000 through 2014. He found that half of St. Louis' violent crime was concentrated on just 5 percent of city blocks.
"I didn't expect it to be that extreme," says Rosenfeld. The professor declined to specify which city blocks suffered the most violence, because these "hot spots" are not necessarily consistent over time. Some flare up as others cool off.
"There's movement at the top of the list," he says.
A Riverfront Times analysis of police data certainly reveals a pattern: Since 2008, about 80 percent of homicides have occurred in just a third of city neighborhoods.
The vast majority of those neighborhoods — including the three with the highest numbers, Wells Goodfellow, JeffVanderLou and Baden — lie in north St. Louis, although a few, such as Dutchtown and Gravois Park, are on the south side (see map). And within such neighborhoods, Rosenfeld says, crime can vary sharply from block to block.
By contrast, dozens of neighborhoods in the central and southern corridors of the city have seen no more than three homicides since 2008. Some, such as South Hampton and Wydown Skinker, have seen zero.
"There's a perception that, 'I will be targeted if I go downtown,'" says Chief Dotson. "But the number of cases I see are few and far between."
The stats support Dotson's claim: Downtown and Downtown West each averaged fewer than three homicides annually from 2008 through 2014. Consider that figure next to the 23.3 million fans who went to a game at Busch Stadium during those years, to say nothing of Rams games, Blues games, festivals, concerts, museums, or even those who live and work downtown.
That's not to suggest that everything's rosy near the Arch. If you lump together Downtown and Downtown West, aggravated assaults are up 60 percent. Perhaps that's partly why former county police chief Tim Fitch recently proposed a lockbox for sports fans to check their guns at sporting events — some people feel safer packing a pistol while walking back to the car after a game.
And while robberies haven't increased in those two neighborhoods this year, they do sometimes turn fatal. Recall the case of the three teens parked behind the City Museum just after midnight on January 11. They were held up at gunpoint, and after a struggle ensued over one victim's purse, another — nineteen-year-old Robert Christman, a recent graduate of DeSmet Jesuit High School — was shot in the head and killed.
But when it comes to homicides in general, it's worth noting where this year's jump is occurring. Our statistical analysis shows the bulk of it — 72 percent, to be exact — has happened outside the downtown area and north of Highway 40.
3. Most Murders Aren’t Random
As Christman's tragic death illustrates, random homicides do happen in St. Louis. But statistically, Police Captain Mike Sack says, "More often than not, these are not random. The offenders are acquaintances of the victims."
Sack, who heads the Crimes Against Persons and Property Division, points to a key stat in a recent police data summary: Of the 57 cases his detectives cleared this year up to September 22, 45 cases involved victims and suspects who knew each other.
Granted, this may not be a representative sample. Perhaps sleuths were able to clear those homicides precisely because the victim and offenders had a relationship of some sort. After all, a truly random homicide that nobody sees and no surveillance camera captures will be hard to solve. That same police summary cited by Sack also listed a total of 95 cases in 2014 in which the relationship between victim and suspect was "unknown."
But it's safe to say that the "all hands on deck" response is most often triggered by a case that appears random — consider Sanna's shooting outside Busch Stadium, when Mayor Slay authorized unlimited overtime and city officials summoned the FBI. A case involving a victim chosen by chance — especially if that victim appears to be an upstanding citizen — is more likely to get significant resources, and more likely to be solved.
Still, there's another sense in which city homicides are not randomly distributed: The same demographic group is statistically much more likely to be both killer and victim.
According to data provided by the circuit attorney, 90 percent of murder victims from January 2014 through August 2015 were black. Eighty-five percent were male, and a plurality, 48 percent, were aged 25 and under.
As a group, homicide defendants very closely mirror the victim pool: Ninety-five percent of defendants in 2014 were black. Ninety-one percent were male, and 55 percent were 25 and under (see image at top of page).
There's another common thread, Sack says: In 2014, about 91 percent of homicide victims had a prior criminal history.
Now, that could mean a simple ordinance violation all the way up to more serious offenses. "That doesn't mean that somebody deserves it," Sack cautions. But clearly, homicide rates are "much, much higher" among people who are criminally involved, Rosenfeld adds — and, as far as he can tell, the surge in murder has mainly affected that group.
"There's no evidence that homicide has spread out to the general population," he says.
It's not only victims and defendants who are often linked to drugs, gangs and guns. A large proportion of witnesses who take the stand at murder trials either have priors or admit to illegal activity during their testimonies, says Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce.
"But that still doesn't make it right to have a homicide," she says, "so we go forward with those cases all the time."
4. No Large-Scale Drug War Has Erupted Between Gangs
It's hardly a secret that heroin is blowing up in the city of St. Louis.
A decade ago the local version of the opiate was diluted, and users often injected it via needles, says James Schroba, special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Agency's St. Louis Division. But that changed in 2008, when drug traffickers such as the Sinaloa Federation began bringing high-quality Colombian and Mexican heroin into St. Louis. It was so pure — in some cases 90 percent pure — users could snort it. This made it more appealing to anyone squeamish about syringes. Plus it was cheap and highly addictive.
"Heroin has created a whole new market of drug user," says Schroba. "People flocked to it."
In local open-air markets, you can get a dose called a "button" for less than $15. And as with any illegal narcotics market, disputes often end in violence.
However, Schroba hesitates to guess how much the heroin trade has contributed to homicides.
"There's some data we just don't have," he says. Furthermore, it's not as though the city is the only market. Customers need not trek to a rundown block in north St. Louis to get their fix, Schroba says. Distributors abound throughout the metro area.
It's also a mistake to equate drug dealers with gang members and vice versa, according to Detective Sergeant Jatonya Clayborn-Muldrow, who heads the city police's gang unit.
St. Louis is home to 132 gangs with 8,600 documented members and associates, she says. They exist all over the city, from north to south, and engage in criminal activity from assault to robbery to auto theft.
But they're nothing like the hierarchical Bloods and Crips of the '80s and '90s, or even the gangs today in Los Angeles or Chicago. Here, they are small, loosely knit social networks that don't have the manpower or sophistication to move big volumes of drugs.
Clayborn-Muldrow says the current surge in homicides is not the result of any large, coordinated campaign of gang retaliation. Indeed, the police don't even track how many homicides are "gang-related," because the circumstances are often murky. For example, if one gang member kills a rival gang member over a female, that wouldn't be gang-related — even though both belong to gangs.
"The lines are so blurred now," she says. "Sometimes, it's just personal."
Mary Pat Carl, the city's lead homicide prosecutor, agrees that motive is difficult to pin down.
"What could've begun as a drug dispute later is just a respect dispute," she says.
In any case, she adds, state law does not require prosecutors to prove why a killing happened, just that it happened. "What we always say to juries is that we don't have to prove motive. Because a lot of times, we can't."
The issue of respect — or a perceived lack thereof — is a big one in St. Louis homicides. It might be a question of drug turf, girls or even something as petty as food, says Circuit Attorney Joyce.
Captain Sack offers an even bleaker assessment.
Of criminal defendants, he says, "We'll talk to these folks and they don't see any future for themselves. In five years they either see themselves in prison or dead. Your average 22-year-old thinks, 'I want to go to college, then get a job, get married, have kids.' These guys aren't thinking that. They're thinking, 'What am I going to do today?' And that's about as far as they're thinking.
"What other options do they have? They may not have a high school education or GED or job skills, so who's going to hire them? How are they going to get to work if they don't have a car? If they pop off at the drop of a hat, who's going to want them at a shop somewhere? So it's just a whole circle that is difficult to get out of. And once they move into a feeling of despair and hopelessness, they're just living for the moment. So their decisions reflect that."
And that has implications for policy.
"If I shoot you because you dissed me, I have low self-esteem," says Joyce. "And as talented as Sam Dotson is, he's not going to be able to 'police' self-esteem into a seventeen-year-old boy."
5. More Police Are Necessary, But Not Sufficient
Back in 2012, with crime relatively low and pension costs soaring, the Slay administration actually shrunk the police force through attrition.
Now Slay is calling for 160 more officers. According to a police spokeswoman, 77 authorized positions currently remain unfilled. Twenty-two police academy recruits will graduate later this month. Dotson has requested two additional classes of a combined 80 recruits, but the academy lasts six months, so those new officers wouldn't hit the streets until next year.
A beefed-up force could make a difference — emphasis on "could."
"Adding police, generally speaking, does tend to reduce crime," says Rosenfeld, "but a strong caveat is it depends on what additional officers do. If they're on patrol and they're engaged in hot-spot strategies, that can be effective. If they're behind a desk, less so."
A recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice that analyzed the crime decline nationwide over the past two decades found that only about a 10 percent drop could be attributed to the hiring of more officers.
Yet nobody disputes that homicides are manpower-intensive. The FBI recommends a workload of just five new homicide cases per detective per year, says Captain Sack. In 2014, that burden in the city of St. Louis rose to 6.5, so this year, with the cases piling up, the chief moved five detectives over to homicide to help out.
Clearly, a murderer taken off the streets is a threat neutralized. But even so, Slay says the city can't police its way out of the problem.
"Police are just one factor in a big, complex picture," says Slay, "because you can't put a police officer next to everybody or inside every home throughout the city."
6. The Problem Is Too Big for City Hall Alone
Of all the critics of the Slay administration's public-safety policies, few are as prominent and vocal as Alderman Antonio French of the 21st Ward.
He believes that Mayor Slay needs to craft a comprehensive plan. (He tweeted the words "comprehensive plan" 23 times in September alone.) He has also launched a website, comprehensiveplan.org, in which he argues that the mayor should shift police and city energies to the north-side neighborhoods hardest hit by violence.
For example, French believes police should flood those areas not for just days or weeks, as they currently do in the "hot-spot policing" model, but for twelve to eighteen months at a time. City workers should use that time to raze unsafe buildings, clean empty lots, market and sell city-owned properties, open storefront job-training centers, provide free one-day health clinics and build speed bumps to calm traffic.
In theory, French says, he could pass his own comprehensive plan through the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, but he doesn't have the votes right now. And even if he did, it's hard under the city hall structure to force a mayor to act if he doesn't want to.
On October 2, French announced that he and his allies on the board would filibuster any bill funding a new football stadium until Slay met with them about the violent crime problem.
And French appears to be getting to the mayor. At press time, Slay was preparing a document, subject to community input and revision, that details his own ideas.
He says that's not in response to French's prodding. In fact, some pieces are already in place, says Slay's chief of staff Mary Ellen Ponder, from enhanced mental health services and youth job training to offender re-entry programs and minority recruitment to the police academy.
In addition, city hall has signed onto Mission SAVE, a civilian/law-enforcement partnership of local, state and federal agencies inspired by the idea of "focused deterrence" — identifying people with a high risk of crime and applying a vigorous combination of carrot and stick.
French sounds underwhelmed by Slay's vision.
"It's a lot of stuff," he concedes, "but it's not coordinated in any way." The mayor's efforts, he says, lack clear goals and mechanisms for evaluation.
But beyond their differing prescriptions to solve the problem, there's a reason French keeps hammering at the issue politically. It's his part of town, and it's his constituents who are most affected. And Slay may be electorally immune to it.
After all, the mayor won the last election thanks to support from the majority-white central and southern corridors, where crime is generally low. The north side has the numbers to oust him, but turnout there stayed below 40 percent in the critical March 2013 Democratic primary.
In fact, Slay would have lost that race — and would not be mayor right now — if all the registered voters who stayed home in the neighborhoods of Wells Goodfellow and Baden alone had actually shown up and voted against him.
James Clark, vice president of community outreach at the non-profit Better Family Life, is skeptical that politicians can even make a dent in the homicide problem.
Clark, who grew up in JeffVanderLou, started out working for Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. in the '90s. He remembers the various initiatives to address it: midnight basketball, turning public schools into rec centers, a youth violence task force.
It wasn't until later, going door-to-door for Better Family Life, that he realized that the problems in north St. Louis go much deeper than a handful of city hall initiatives — and stretch beyond the city's budget.
"I'm out there talking to the single mothers, I'm on front porches and I'm standing in living rooms, and I see a mentality I've never seen before," says Clark. It's a pervasive anger, a quick temper and a propensity toward violence even among young children.
"It used to be that bad boys killed people," Clark says. "Now, the boys whose fingers are on the trigger — they're just as much a victim as the people they shoot, because they were born into an environment where that behavior was accepted, expected, taught and reinforced."
The only solution, he believes, is to saturate the troubled neighborhoods with on-the-ground caseworkers and wrap-around resources — not a police force, but a "compassion force" — on a scale that only private foundations could possibly finance. It has to be direct, relentless and focused on each individual.
"This is not a political problem," he says. "The mayor doesn't have the reach for this. He can point in the right direction. But this is a family and neighborhood problem. You can't legislate what happens in a family."
7. The Ferguson Effect May Exist, But the Data to Support It Doesn’t
Chief Dotson is often credited for coining the phrase "the Ferguson Effect" — the idea that crime went up in the aftermath of the officer-involved shooting of Mike Brown in August 2014 for three reasons: Officers felt trepidation about enforcing the law; they diverted their attention to protest actions; and criminals felt emboldened.
On August 31 the New York Times published a story titled "Murder Rates Rising Sharply in Many U.S. Cities." The reporters showed how homicides were up in several major cities, citing the "Ferguson Effect" as a possible reason.
The backlash from Black Lives Matter sympathizers was swift. Arguing that there was no Ferguson Effect whatsoever, the Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates blasted "the utterly baseless suggestion that those who protested in Ferguson may well have blood on their hands."
Coates cited a paper published by none other than Rosenfeld, who argued a simple point: Homicides in St. Louis were already climbing before Ferguson, so Ferguson couldn't have caused the climb.
But that argument isn't ironclad. Homicides in St. Louis are constantly rising and falling on a month-to-month basis, as Rosenfeld's own graph shows. (It reveals a much more dramatic rise and fall between January and June — months before the Ferguson unrest.)
Regardless of any statistical noise right before Brown's death, the only way to prove the Ferguson Effect would be to compare what happened with what would have happened had Mike Brown never been shot — and that's impossible to know. "Proving the counterfactual," Rosenfeld correctly observes, "is challenging, to say the least."
In the end, though, the main obstacle to accepting the Ferguson Effect is the current lack of any empirical data on whether officers really do feel hesitant to enforce the law, or have spent a significant amount of time distracted by protests — and whether those factors did indeed boost crime. So far, it's all anecdotal.
"Somebody could prove me wrong," says Dotson. But at a recent meeting with police chiefs from across the country, he was struck by the uptick in violence across the country, and by how many of his colleagues found his theory plausible.
"What else could be happening everywhere?" he says. "This didn't just fall in everybody's lap."
8. Guns Are a Problem
There is no question that guns loom large in city homicides. Of the 152 victims this year through the end of September, 145 were killed by firearms.
Increasingly, police are finding ammunition used in AK-47 and AR-15 rifles on the streets. With high-caliber bullets, shootings become increasingly deadly.
"A 30-caliber round will go right through a car," says Sack. "People get hit by that, and they just don't survive."
Furthermore, compared to last year, gun seizures by police are up by a quarter from January through August, even though Dotson says he hasn't ordered his officers to pursue them any differently. Reports of stolen guns are up by 46 percent.
However, this doesn't necessarily mean that there's a new influx of guns into the city. It could mean that criminals are behaving differently with them, or police are getting better at rooting them out.
Dotson, in league with the circuit attorney, the mayor and now Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, is calling for an "armed offender docket," a special court designed to allow for greater speed, scrutiny and consistency on gun offenses — and presumably, to result in tougher sentences.
On his blog, Dotson recently wrote, "If the penalty for committing crimes like armed robbery and unlawful use of weapon in our society is simply being told, 'OK now, please don't do that again,' what are we going to do about even more serious crimes?"
9. St. Louis Has a High Murder Rate, Not a High Unsolved Murder Rate
It's not easy to pinpoint how many murders go unsolved each year.
First, police and prosecutors define "homicide" differently. If a drunk driver crashes into another car and kills someone, the cops don't consider that a "homicide" under the data they report to the FBI. The circuit attorney, however, uses the broader Missouri statute and could charge the driver with involuntary manslaughter, which indeed counts as as a homicide in their system. So their victim totals don't match up.
Secondly, the agencies track success differently. City police say that from 2010 through 2014, detectives cleared 56 percent of homicide cases — and that just happens to be the clearance rate for all similarly sized cities in the U.S. in 2014, according to the DOJ. Far from being an outlier, our police department's clearance rate is utterly normal.
The Circuit Attorney's Office, meanwhile, computes their numbers in terms of defendants. They claim to issue charges against 50 to 70 percent of the homicide defendants brought to their attention by police.
The DOJ does not track issue rates among state prosecutors, so there's no central database through which to make a comparison. When city prosecutors do take on a homicide case, they almost always win: So far this year, they've convicted 37 of 38 defendants.
But because the number of victims and offenders can vary by the case, and because some investigations drag on for years, and because some convictions get appealed and overturned, it's impossible to arrive at a reliable percentage of "solved" cases without first obtaining years worth of records from several branches of the criminal-justice system.
Regardless, any time a suspected killer goes free it's a concern — and in St. Louis, a "no-snitching" ethos is often blamed. The term refers both to the reluctance of witnesses to testify for fear of retribution and to a code of silence among criminals.
Joyce says retaliation against witnesses does happen, but not as often as commonly believed. She adds that her office can cobble together funds to relocate witnesses for their protection, even if the city lacks the resources of the federal Witness Protection Program. And she emphasizes that prosecutors do rely heavily on witnesses, despite the misperception — fueled by TV shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation — that forensic evidence is always available and conclusive.
"There's a lot of people that just don't understand the criminal-justice system," she says. "People don't realize that, without their involvement, we're done."
Alderman French bristles at the "no-snitching" viewpoint that blames regular citizens for enabling a culture of violence.
"The idea that they're cowards is offensive," says French. Trust is strained because of police shootings and because police aren't careful with informant identities, he says. It's no wonder folks won't talk: "These people are making rational decisions."
Citizens may be rational, but as Sack and Joyce observe, many who commit criminal violence are not. So even if every witness cooperates and every murder gets solved, it's not clear that murders would cease. Tougher sentences — or even a certainty of getting caught — won't stop someone who has pulled out a gun because they're angry, or desperate, or both.
And that might be the scariest thing of all.
10. Homicide Affects All of Us
The statistics don't lie: Most murders in St. Louis take place far from the leafy corners and trendy cafés where people are reading the Riverfront Times. And most victims, as well as perpetrators, may not fit the profile of people you know. Statistically, they're likely poorer, younger and more likely to have criminal records.
Why should you care? If they want to kill each other, why is that your concern?
First, there's a practical argument.
The murder rate here is giving all of St. Louis a black eye — and it may be keeping your property values down. A 2012 study by the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based progressive think tank, concluded that a 25 percent reduction in a city's homicides could boost housing prices citywide by 2 percent.
But even that slight number could be disputed. A 2010 study in the journal Regional Science and Urban Economics found that only aggravated assault and robbery had a meaningful effect on a neighborhood's property values.
Likewise, Christopher Thiemet, an owner of Circa Properties and himself a real estate broker, says that crime's effect on the real-estate market in St. Louis is highly localized. While some county residents may lump all of the city together, in general, the desirability of any given municipal enclave is not noticeably affected by what happens all the way across town.
"If you're talking about property values, an increase in crime may have an impact right where it happens. But if there's a dramatic change in crime four miles away, I don't see it having an impact."
Still, it's definitely not good for the city's image. And beyond that, there is a very real cost to the murders that are piling up in St. Louis.
It's not just the occasional eruptions into the areas thought to be safe zones — the high-profile shootings like Chris Sanna's, or the killing of Megan Boken, which jolted the city because it befell a young blonde woman in the Central West End.
It's also cases like the murder of Rashad Farmer, the young nephew of Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, who was gunned down in July near dusk at Lotus and Goodfellow avenues.
Farmer was just 23, and by all accounts a good kid in the wrong place at the wrong time. Devastated, Boyd unleashed a tirade to TV cameras, calling for the sort of anger that greets police shootings to also accompany those instances when young men kill each other.
"We march every time the police shoot and kill somebody. Whether they deserve it or not, I can't call it," he said. "But we're not marching when we're killing each other in the streets! Let's march for that. How about that?"
Self-interest aside, we need to care because, simply put, our neighbors are dying. The English poet John Donne may have put it best:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
We are all diminished by murder. We may never be able to squeeze the number down to zero, but we all need to care.
Despite all the caveats and uncertainties laid out above, murder in St. Louis is a huge problem — and we cannot act as though it's a big mystery who is affected and in what neighborhoods. We've known for decades, even if the rate of killing fluctuates.
Clearly, the status quo is not a solution. The status quo is not something we can live with.
That was true for 159 St. Louisans last year. This year, it may be true for more than 200.