Injustice for All

The city's image problems cut across race lines when it comes to crime

Perception is reality.

Just ask my friend Carrie, who had the scare of her life Friday night in the city of St. Louis.

Carrie was out for dinner and drinks with her mother, who dropped her off at her Holly Hills apartment on the South Side shortly before midnight. Her mother watched her walk up the steps of the two-family dwelling where she lives with her 4-year-old son but didn't stay long enough to see what happened as she was opening her door.

"I have a gun. Give me your purse, bitch," Carrie was greeted as she turned her key.

Her first impulse, irrationally, was to clutch the purse strap tighter. Then, after looking over her shoulder and seeing that her intruder wasn't kidding about the gun, she let go.

Fortunately for her -- far beyond fortunately -- this was only a robbery. The idiot ran off into the night, and Carrie lived to tell the story.

The rest is pretty much what happens as part of life in a big city: The victim screams and runs to call 911, the police show up, the search for the perpetrator comes up empty and what's left is a night of calling credit-card companies and quaking in terror.

And then there's the day after, with the inevitable decision for a single mother with a young child: It's moving time.

"I've always liked living in the city and this neighborhood, and I think I'm pretty city-smart," Carrie told me. "But now I feel invaded. I hate to say it, but I'm asking myself why I should stay here and try to help make this place work.

"Maybe if I didn't have a 4-year-old, I'd chalk it up to experience and stick it out. With him, though, I don't have any choice. I'm looking for a new place."

Normally I wouldn't have written about this. Except to the victim, it doesn't count as a major crime, and it could have happened anywhere. Besides, the city receives a bad rap when it comes to crime, especially because St. Louis' crime rates don't differ much statistically from those in areas of similar popular density and economic status in surrounding counties.

But what struck me about Carrie's story was how smoothly it fit into widely established perceptions about urban life and how those perceptions become reality.

Is she really at great risk in a neighborhood that, for years, has been a safe place to live? Probably not.

Is she likely to be a lot safer in a similarly modest apartment dwelling in an inner-ring suburb? Probably not.

Would you argue with her decision to move? Probably not.

Her perception is her reality.

Now, consider another set of perceptions about crime, just as strongly held as the ones that make my friend's circumstances seem so understandable. This is the view, from across the great racial divide, that black people -- in particular, young black men -- have much to fear from the police.

It is virtually impossible to find a black person without some story to tell about a less-than-great encounter with police. So widespread are these perceptions -- they cut across all social and economic lines -- that the issue of racial profiling in traffic stops is one of the only race-related political matters that raises little argument between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives.

But profiling isn't limited to traffic stops, and the perceptions about injustice aren't limited to profiling. As the nation saw in the O.J. Simpson and Rodney King cases (among others), nothing causes deep-seated emotions to erupt over race -- on both sides -- like the subject of crime.

In the city of St. Louis, this is manifested in the growing anger over deaths (or serious shootings) of young black men at the hands of police. This despite the efforts -- over nearly two decades -- of two strong and respected African-American police chiefs who have made racial fairness and harmony a top priority.

The perception among blacks of unfair and even lethal treatment at the hands of police is every bit as strong as those whites hold with regard to the perils of the big city for women like my friend Carrie (who is white). The concerns are hardly limited to the big stories -- anecdotal claims about "little" incidents of unpleasant encounters and even improper searches are as plentiful as "little" stories such as Carrie's -- but there is no denying that a parade of celebrated cases is only making the perception worse.

Last week, there were two shootings of blacks by city police. So far, little is known about the most recent shooting, involving a 21-year-old black man outside a North Side nightclub on Friday night. Chief Ron Henderson has said an investigation is under way.

But already controversial is the shooting last Tuesday of 16-year-old Jerome Johnson, who was critically wounded by police. Officers say he opened fire on them first, but defense attorney Brad Kessler, hired by Johnson's family, says at least five witnesses have told him that Johnson was unarmed and posed no danger to police when he was shot.

Police officials have publicly criticized Kessler for not bringing forth the witnesses, but he has told the RFT and other media outlets that the witnesses -- young black men -- are too afraid of the police to go in for questioning. So far, Kessler has made them available to the media but not to authorities.

That's not the way these things are supposed to work, but, then again, this isn't supposed to be a city where demonstrators march outside a hospital with signs reading, "Is this open season on young black males?" and "Protect our streets, don't slaughter our children."

Again, it's all about perceptions, fueled not only by this shooting but by a number of other incidents, such as the 1999 rooftop encounter that resulted in the death of burglary suspect Julius Thurman. Last month, Officer Robert Dodson was acquitted of second-degree murder in Thurman's death.

Now the issue of whether Dodson should be hired is raging, with the St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners appearing to walk a reasonable middle ground to this point. But no matter what happens with Dodson, it's pretty much certain that either his supporters or his detractors -- or, more likely, both -- will be livid at the outcome.

Perceptions will keep getting worse.

And that, for the city, is one cold reality.

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