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Messenger: Crime is down in St. Louis, bucking a national trend in American cities

Messenger: Crime is down in St. Louis, bucking a national trend in American cities

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Man killed in O'Fallon neighborhood

A St. Louis police officer guards the homicide scene where a man was killed in the 4400 block of Red Bud Avenue in the O'Fallon neighborhood on Saturday, May 29, 2021. Photo by Robert Cohen,

Post-Dispatch columnists Aisha Sultan and Tony Messenger discuss dropping homicide numbers in St. Louis.

• More about the drop in homicides in St. Louis during 2021.

• From ProPublica: What Philadelphia reveals about America's homicide surge

• Read about the Washington University gun violence imitative.

Richard Rosenfeld is a “both-and” guy.

When it comes to fighting crime, the nationally recognized criminologist from the University of Missouri-St. Louis believes that more than one strategy should be applied and that they should work together. That’s the conclusion he draws in the latest of his reports on rising crime in American cities during the coronavirus pandemic.

The quarterly reports, published by the nonpartisan Council on Criminal Justice, look at homicide and other crime rates in 29 American cities during the pandemic. The news from most of those cities over the past couple of years has been that crime is rising. In the latest report, examining the first half of 2021, homicide rates rose 16% over 2020, though the rate of increase is slowing.

To combat the rising crime in American cities, Rosenfeld suggests solutions that are embraced by both sides of the political spectrum: “As the pandemic subsides, hot-spot strategies that focus comprehensive enforcement and prevention efforts on those areas where the violence is concentrated should be redoubled,” Rosenfeld and his co-researcher Ernesto Lopez write.

“The anti-violence efforts of street outreach workers and other non-police actors who engage directly with those at the highest risk for violence must also be strengthened and sustained,” they wrote. “These anti-crime efforts should occur in tandem with long-term reforms to increase accountability for police misconduct and to redirect certain police functions, such as addressing the day-to-day problems of the homeless and responding to drug overdoses, to other agencies and personnel better equipped to handle them.”

It is, Rosenfeld told me last week, a “both-and” approach. Reforming police works hand in hand with shifting some police resources to social service-type agencies, while also concentrating a heavier police presence in some high-crime areas.

In early 2021, that has been the approach in St. Louis, and it may be working. Unlike most of the cities in Rosenfeld’s study, crime is down in St. Louis this year, particularly homicides. Let me repeat that because if you pay attention to the constant social media activity of some of the state’s top Republicans, you might have missed this news: Crime is dropping in St. Louis.

As reported by my colleague Erin Heffernan earlier this month, homicides are down in St. Louis 30% this year, dropping far below last year’s rate, which had been the highest in the city in 50 years. Public Safety Director Dan Isom, who was appointed by Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, believes that a change in policing strategy might account for some of the drop in homicides. Isom used to be a colleague of Rosenfeld’s at UMSL and has been focused, in part, on shifting resources to high-crime areas, particularly at night when most homicides in the city occur.

For Rosenfeld, this is potentially an early validation of the strategies he’s suggesting in his pandemic and crime reports.

“The downturn in homicides in St. Louis is really quite striking,” he says. “We’re now back at a pre-pandemic homicide rate. It could very well be that the decline in police legitimacy may be subsiding a bit. People may be turning back to a situation where there is more cooperation with police.”

Trust between police and the communities they serve, particularly Black communities, has been hard to come by in St. Louis for many years. It was that broken trust that led to the massive protests in Ferguson seven years ago Monday, when Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer.

Those protests helped build the Black Lives Matter movement, which reached a new pinnacle after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020. After each of those deaths and the ensuing protests, homicides and other forms of crime spiked in many cities. Rosenfeld says that makes sense, because the broken trust between Black residents in those communities and the police officers who were working overtime at protests was further eroded.

But both sides of that debate, he believes, can play an important role when it comes to reducing crime in American cities. Reform works hand in hand with shifting police resources, with anti-violence programs, with nurses and social workers treating gun violence like the public health problem that it is, and, yes, with a sometimes heavier police presence in certain high-violence neighborhoods.

Crime is down in St. Louis. Rosenfeld is a data guy, so he’s not about to point to any empirical reasons why that is so, but the fact that it is down is worth noting and studying so that lessons can be applied to other cities.

“Constructive police reform has to go hand in hand with redoubling hot-spot policing,” he says. “One feeds the other.”

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