Republicans' War on Kim Gardner

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner has been a top target for Republicans at all levels.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner has been a top target for Republicans at all levels. DANNY WICENTOWSKI

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St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner says she received death threats after charging the McCloskeys. - DOYLE MURPHY
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner says she received death threats after charging the McCloskeys.

There has been a lot of murder this year in St. Louis.

As of Monday, 172 had been killed, compared to 128 at this time in 2019. The city is on pace for its deadliest twelve months since the bloody days of the early 1990s.

To make matters worse, according to Parson and Schmitt, there is a "backlog" of murder cases going unprosecuted by Gardner. In an August 10 news release, the governor cited police statistics showing charges had been issued in just 33 of what was then 161 homicides in the city. But the implication that Gardner was sitting on a backlog of 128 murders is, at best, grossly misleading. That's because it leaves out a key piece of the equation: arrests. As of August 14, police officers had arrested 44 people in homicide cases and charges had been issued by the circuit attorney in 34 cases, according to a department spokeswoman. The St. Louis police force's clearance rate for homicides has hovered between 30 and 40 percent in recent years, well below the national average of 62 percent in 2018, the most recent year available. Explained another way, prosecutors can't charge murder cases they never see.

It is true that Gardner turns away more homicide cases than her predecessors, and her prosecutors lose more of the felony cases they take to trial. So far this year, Gardner has sent back ten homicide cases, according to police statistics. Her office's trial conviction rate for felonies, which includes more than homicides, is slightly better than 50 percent. By comparison, Jennifer Joyce refused to issue charges in just one murder case presented by police during her final two years as circuit attorney, and the office's felony conviction rate at trial was better than 70 percent. (Gardner points out that trials account for a tiny fraction of the volume of cases, and her overall felony conviction rate, which includes pleas, is 97 percent.) What that says about differing standards for issuing cases — or the working relationship between police and prosecutors — is up for debate, but it doesn't show a backlog of cases in the circuit attorney's office.

That hasn't stopped Parson and other Republicans from making it a talking point as they head toward an election in November. In July, the governor called a special legislative session to debate a series of measures, including the elimination of residency rules for St. Louis cops and creating an expanded avenue to try kids as young as twelve as adults. Less than a week after Gardner rolled to an easy victory in the Democratic primary, all but guaranteeing she'll win reelection in November, Parson moved to add another piece — new powers of the attorney general to take over St. Louis murder cases under certain circumstances.

Under the proposal, the attorney general could pick up murder cases 90 days after police present them if the circuit attorney has yet to issue charges and the chief law enforcement officer requests that the attorney general intervene.

"This proposal is not about taking away authority," Parson said in a news release. "It is about fighting violent crime, achieving justice for victims and making our communities safer."

It would, however, provide for a scenario where the attorney general could prosecute cases that Gardner's prosecutors have rejected as too weak or are still waiting on additional evidence for. She says the key to building cases is building trust with the community, so that witnesses and victims feel comfortable working with investigators. Inserting the attorney general won't speed up the process, she says.

"It takes time, and there is no time limit," Gardner says. "This is not a TV show."

Missouri Governor Mike Parson wants the attorney general to take over some murder cases in St. Louis. - TOM HELLAUER
Missouri Governor Mike Parson wants the attorney general to take over some murder cases in St. Louis.

The governor's proposal assumes that the bottleneck in murder cases lies in the circuit attorney's office and violent crime is up as a result. Both are questionable conclusions.

Criminologist Richard Rosenfeld, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has studied the surge in violent crime during the pandemic — not just in St. Louis, but across 27 cities. He doubts that anything Gardner is or isn't doing is behind the increase.

"I think it's unlikely," he says. "That might be the case if we were only seeing the rise in St. Louis, but we're seeing the rise in many other cities across the country."

Across the twenty cities where homicide data was available, homicides increased 37 percent in late May and June, and aggravated assaults increased 35 percent across seventeen cities, according to a recent report authored by Rosenfeld and UMSL graduate student Ernesto Lopez Jr.

Even accounting for the usual uptick in violence that tends to come with summer, the increase is significant. Rosenfeld notes that it comes during a time of upheaval, not just from the pandemic but widespread protests that followed George Floyd's death.

Something else has happened during the pandemic in St. Louis: A lot of the face-to-face policing stopped. Car stops, building checks and other activities that police categorize as "self-initiated" dropped sharply. Traffic violations alone fell by more than 90 percent as police changed their strategies in hopes of slowing the spread of COVID-19. In an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, police Captain Renee Kriesmann said officers were temporarily instructed to not pull over vehicles or stop pedestrians unless a serious crime was being committed. The paper noted that in the police department's 4th District, which includes downtown, police reported no traffic violations in July, compared to 265 during the same four weeks in 2019.

Police have since resumed self-initiated activity, but it's too early to say whether that will make a difference on August's numbers. In July, the city recorded 55 homicides, more than double the 22 killings in July 2019.

In an interview, Rosenfeld says there could be other factors at play. It's possible that populations that have typically had fraught relations with law enforcement are even less likely to call them or work with them as police protests continue across the country. Time will provide more clarity about the cause of the increased number of killings, but Rosenfeld and Lopez write that controlling COVID-19 is a good place to start:

"In our view, subduing the COVID-19 pandemic is a necessary condition for halting the rise in violence. In addition, both the rise in violence and social unrest are likely to persist unless effective violence-reduction strategies are coupled with needed reforms to policing."

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