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Tony Messenger is the metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Meeting to discuss crime

From left to right, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page join other regional, state and federal officials in a meeting to discuss crime at City Hall in downtown St. Louis on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. Photo by Cristina M. Fletes, cfletes@post-dispatch.com.

In the early 1990s, homicides were spiking again in the city of St. Louis.

After a near decade of fewer than 200 homicides per year, there were 260 in 1991, followed by 231 the next year. In 1993, the number jumped to 267, then 248 in 1994.

The city was building statues to remember dead children, like the one of Christopher Harris that still stands in front of Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital.

Against that backdrop, Attorney General Janet Reno and House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt hosted the “Missouri Crime Summit” at Southwest High School. The solutions then were the same as they nearly always are after such summits: Three strikes and you’re out. Build more prisons, do something about guns, be tough on crime.

Over the years, every time there is a spike in crime, particularly when children are involved, somebody holds a crime summit. Former Police Chief Joe Mokwa held one in 2008. Two years later, Gov. Jay Nixon held a drunk-driving summit, focusing on another recurring crime problem. In 2013, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster held an urban crime summit. In 2015, then-Mayor Francis Slay and other law enforcement officials announced a new effort called “Mission SAVE” in which city, county, state and federal leaders would work together to attack the city’s crime problem.

Each of these crime summits had something in common.

Prosecutors from the city and St. Louis County were involved.

“There’s a reason for that,” says former St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce. “Prosecutors play a key role in any effort to address crime.”

Joyce attended many such summits.

That’s why she was shocked that the latest summit — held Tuesday between Mayor Lyda Krewson, Gov. Mike Parson, and County Executive Sam Page — didn’t include the region’s two elected prosecutors, Kim Gardner in the city and Wesley Bell in the county.

Police chiefs were there, and representatives of the U.S. attorney’s office.

But the local prosecutors were not invited.

“I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t invite Kim or Wesley to this,” Joyce said. “I don’t understand the thought there at all.”

It’s worth noting: Bell and Gardner are the first two black elected prosecutors in St. Louis history.

They also both got elected on a new progressive philosophy that embraces the sort of criminal justice reform that rubs the “tough-on-crime” types wrong, particularly the St. Louis Police Officers Association, which has all but declared war on the two prosecutors, with its incendiary spokesman, Jeff Roorda, and his new social media sidekick, lobbyist Jane Dueker, leading the charge.

Black children are dying in the streets, and yet the top elected law enforcement officials in the region, who both happen to be black, aren’t invited to be part of the meeting to devise a solution.

This is St. Louis in 2019.

This wasn’t an oversight or a mistake. It wasn’t an “accidental” all-white ribbon cutting at the new Arch grounds that forces a do-over.

It was an intentional travesty that once again ripped open the city’s deep racial wounds and likely did more harm than good when it comes to reducing crime.

Bell said he was “disappointed” in the leaders for not inviting the elected prosecutors to the crime summit.

“I’m unclear how a productive conversation can be had without including the office of the prosecuting attorney,” Bell said. “How do we move beyond words and into real solutions for reducing violent crime when we don’t bring all of our law enforcement resources to the table?”

Gardner was similarly upset.

“Violent crime has plagued this region for decades. There are no magic bullets or one-size-fits-all solutions. Yet, Wesley Bell and I are implementing solutions that address long-term violent crime, and we were not included in this most important conversation. We are doing things differently and the caretakers of the status quo are unmistakably frustrated with that,” Gardner said in a statement after the meeting. “There is a clear and concerted effort to isolate the two reform-minded elected prosecutors in our region. Why is that? Is it because we think differently about the way we should address long-term crime reduction? Is it because we hear the cries of people who want us to both cooperate with police while holding them accountable for actions that erode trust from the public?”

St. Louis is far below the number of homicides from 1994, but the rate is still too high, and children, at least 12 this year, have lost their lives.

It’s all hands on deck time, says Bell, whether the governor and mayor support a new way to look at crime prevention, or not.

“The St. Louis region needs all invested partners addressing this crisis that continues to plague our communities — our children, for God’s sake,” Bell said. “This is when we come together with all leaders … all hands on deck, everyone. We have to comprehensively address what is happening, in order to change the culture and to help the victims of violent crime and their families.”

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