ST. LOUIS — The same scenes play out time and again for police Lt. Scott Aubuchon’s homicide detectives when they arrive to investigate another death in the city: yellow police tape, the wails of family and evidence technicians scouring for bullet casings.
Aubuchon’s team is struggling to keep up as the city contends with a homicide rate that, by year’s end, likely will be the worst in at least a half-century.
The number of killings soared over the summer as detectives were called to 114 homicides in June, July and August. There were 53 people killed in the city in July alone.
“Since June 1, our numbers began to rise at the alarming rate,” said Aubuchon, the homicide unit’s commander since 2018. “We’ve never seen anything like the last three months. These are indescribable times.”
The same can be said for the year.
The shooting death last Monday of a 15-year-old girl in the Riverview neighborhood was the 194th homicide of the year, matching the city’s total for all of 2019. That number has since been surpassed. If the pace of killings continues, St. Louis will reach an ignoble milestone. Over the past decade, the city has averaged 50 homicides in the last four months of the year, according to police statistics. If that holds true, St. Louis will see about 240 homicides in 2020, the highest in 25 years.
The highest number of killings in a single year in St. Louis was 267 in 1993, when the city had some 387,000 residents. That means the homicide rate — homicides per 100,000 people — was 69 that year. But the population of St. Louis has continued to dwindle over the decades, settling now at just over 300,000. The result this year is a homicide rate that’s projected to be 79, a startling number that appears to exceed the rate for any other large U.S. city.
The homicide rate matters when determining whether one city is more dangerous than another, or whether a particular city is getting more dangerous from year to year, criminologists say.
Another city with a similar number of people, Cincinnati, had a homicide rate last year of 24, its highest in about a dozen years. Pittsburgh, which also has virtually the same population as St. Louis, had a rate of 12 in 2019, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting statistics.
Baltimore saw a stunning 348 killings last year, but with a population about double that of St. Louis, Baltimore’s homicide rate was 58.
“It’s important to remember that behind these numbers are real lives,” St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson said in a statement. “Someone’s daughter, son, father, mother, brother, sister. And as a city, we care deeply about them and their families who’ve been devastated by this senseless violence. The men and women of our police department are working extremely diligently to find the people responsible for these losses as they continue to address all crime day in and day out.”
Most of the deaths in St. Louis are not solved, making it difficult for detectives to pinpoint motives, but Aubuchon said the motive in the killings that have been solved are “all over the place.”
“Random fights that escalate,” Aubuchon said. “Some folks under the influence of drugs. Arguments over stolen money.”
One key difference detectives have noticed is the relationship between killer and victim. They seem to be closer: family members and close friends. In the past it was more likely to be an acquaintance or, rarely, a stranger, Aubuchon said.
“We always look for the trends,” he said. “Anything that could help us turn this tide back.”
Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said the nature of events remains largely the same compared to the killings in the 1990s. The typical homicide involves two young men, usually African American, in a dispute in which one kills the other. It does appear there are fewer gang homicides now than in the ‘90s, a trend that’s not specific to St. Louis, said Rosenfeld, a former president of the American Society of Criminology. Drug-related homicides remain prevalent, he added.
Finding witnesses willing to cooperate with investigators has always been a challenge for St. Louis police, and Aubuchon said the pandemic is making it even harder.
“It’s tough to talk with somebody standing through a door wearing a mask,” Aubuchon said. “People are wearing masks, and they don’t invite us into the house where we can discreetly interact with them. People are afraid to come into our office. It’s a closed space and people are restricting their exposure to strangers, which we are.”
Police Chief John Hayden earlier this year added six detectives and a sergeant to the homicide unit, which now has 33 detectives and seven sergeants. Still, the homicide crews are working long hours, and each crew is managing five to 10 cases at a time.
“It’s not easy to juggle that many cases and do the work that’s needed in those cases,” Aubuchon said. “The detectives are working exceptionally long hours.”
Statistics compiled by St. Louis police provide a glimpse at the murder victims and possible motives of their killers. A majority of the victims this year (156) have been Black men and boys. As of last week, police said they have suspects in just 69 cases, and most were Black males.
More than half of the killings are in the northern part of St. Louis and nearly all of the killings are carried out with a firearm.
The motive is elusive. For the cases in which a reason is listed, 18 involved an argument, six involved a burglary and fewer than 10 victims were thought to be killed for drugs or in retaliation.
Police have identified suspects in 47 killings this year, but about three-fourths of the murders remain unsolved. Aubuchon said killings typically are solved months later, and his detectives are still solving cases from last year. The clearance rate so far this year is 24%, which falls short of the national clearance rate for murder of about 60%.
The homicide tally excludes killings that were determined to be justified, such as cases of self-defense and fatal police shootings.
As long as there has been murder, there have been people trying to explain it.
Back in 1969, the homicide commander at the time reacted to a surge in killings this way: “It’s the same old reason,” police Capt. Norman Jacobsmeyer told the Post-Dispatch. “It’s the same problem all over the country: a disregard for law and an accessibility of guns.”
Three years ago, a police lieutenant who led the team of homicide investigators before Aubuchon took over gave the newspaper a slightly different explanation. He said he saw society changing. “The value of life is not there anymore,” Lt. John Green said. “They don’t care.”
And this July, Chief Hayden said in the midst of the particularly violent summer that people seemed to have “shorter fuses.” Half of the homicides were drug-related and many were rooted in domestic disputes or personal quarrels between people who know each other, Hayden said. Often the victims and suspects have “strong criminal histories,” the chief said. Random killings of innocent people draw the headlines but are still rare, police said.
Hayden said police alone can’t curb the violence. Social services like conflict resolution are helpful, the chief said. This month, officials announced a $1 million federal grant to the Urban League for an anti-crime initiative. One aspect of the initiative is to send in so-called “violence interrupters” who are trained in conflict mediation to establish relationships with high-risk people and discourage retaliation.
Aubuchon said such programs are a hopeful sign, and so is the help St. Louis police are getting from federal officers as part of the highly touted “Operation Legend.” Aubuchon said some federal agents are helping search for witnesses and suspects, and that the federal officers have been making a significant number of arrests of people with guns and drugs. And because nearly 95% of murder victims are shot, those arrests in gun cases are removing potential suspects from the streets, Aubuchon said.
Katie Dalton, executive director of a victims’ advocacy nonprofit in St. Louis, said “the COVID stress” might be partly to blame for more homicides.
“The entire world is going through a crisis. People are homebound, kids are not in school. The stress level people are living with every day is higher,” said Dalton, who heads the Crime Victim Center. Her group counsels people whose loved ones were killed in drug or gang crimes, were victims of “random drive-by shootings” or were caught in a robbery gone bad.
Beth M. Huebner, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said this is a “time of great community strife.” Some high-profile killings of Black people nationwide have reopened some of the wounds from Ferguson, she said.
How does that translate into a higher homicide rate? The uptick in killings, Huebner argues, might be a result of people losing trust in police. “When people don’t trust the police they take things into their own hands,” she said. “I think that people want to find some justice. Retaliation is a key in the St. Louis crime rate.”
People are less likely to call police when trouble happens, Huebner said, and more people are carrying guns for protection, which can translate into deadly shootings during quarrels. A “small interaction that could have been just a fight becomes a gun fight,” she said.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner, in describing why people are killing one another, said it’s “a perfect storm of hopelessness.”
“Everyone has access to a gun, (at) younger ages now ... poverty, continued disinvestment in communities that need help the most,” compounded by the despair of the pandemic, she said.
“Hopelessness causes people to cause havoc,” Gardner said. “We have to address the root causes. It’s unfortunate that St. Louis city has had a history of violent crime, but I’ve never seen a plan where we historically addressed the hopelessness.”
Valerie Dent, 66, sees the homicide tally through the eyes of a woman whose two sons were gunned down in St. Louis after stepping off a bus in 2014. Dent said she’s not surprised by the climbing death toll.
“I don’t see it changing,” she said. “Not until we can start communicating with one another and have trust.”
A witness to her sons’ murders didn’t come forward for 2½ years because the woman initially didn’t want to get involved.
“As long as they know nobody is going to say anything, and nobody is going to give a description of the car, this will continue,” Dent said. The witness testimony helped convict Derrie Williams of murdering the two brothers, James Dent, 34, and Steven Dent, 25.
Dent now leads Mothers in Charge to help loved ones of other murder victims. She said the culture of “snitches get stitches,” a saying that’s been around for decades, is real in St. Louis. Some people are afraid of retaliation if they talk to police, Dent said. She suggests that authorities find a way to offer better protection to witnesses.
“When these crimes are happening, people have accepted this as a way of life,” Dent said. “In north city, you hear shooting over there all the time. It’s like no big deal. They’ve accepted homicides, too.”