In 2015, St. Louis Is Headed Toward the Most Homicides in Decades. How Can We Stop The Bloodshed? 

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click to enlarge RANDY LUTZ
  • Randy Lutz

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."

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March 25, 2020

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