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Crime data doesn’t support celebrated St. Louis police strategy

Crime data doesn’t support celebrated St. Louis police strategy

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ST. LOUIS — Tamika Gardner is trying to remain patient.

Over the last 25 years, she’s watched as home after home on her block became vacant. The street gangs of the 1990s are no longer a threat, but they’ve been replaced by addicts, vagrants and teens who use the “vacos” as party houses, Gardner said. She’s reluctant to let her two young children play outside.

“It’s been like that for a while over here now,” she said. “I’m just kind of used to it.”

Gardner lives in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood, which is part of what’s become known as Hayden’s Rectangle.

St. Louis police Chief John Hayden two years ago introduced a new strategy in an attempt to suppress violent crime. It identified a broad area in north city, roughly in the shape of a rectangle, that he said was responsible for two-thirds of the city’s homicides, carjackings and other acts of violence. He intended to target the area — bounded by Goodfellow Boulevard, Vandeventer Avenue, Martin Luther King Drive and West Florissant Avenue — with additional police resources and through greater coordination with other law enforcement groups.

A year later, Hayden held a community gathering to announce the success of the strategy, heralding the number of arrests and pounds of drugs seized. He praised the initiative, which also used resources from federal agencies like the FBI, as the reason for fewer open-air drug markets.

But a review of St. Louis police crime data by the Post-Dispatch calls into question why Hayden even chose the area. The rectangle in 2017, when Hayden launched the effort, never accounted for the amount of violent crime that the chief claimed. An analysis of crime in other parts of the city also undermines the reasoning for two other rectangles selected by St. Louis police for the same treatment, one year after the first rectangle was established.

“What we want to know, from the police department’s own assessment, is whether the citywide changes in crime are in fact being driven by changes in the area of the city where the police department is concentrating its resources,” said Rick Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “It’s not entirely clear to me that’s the case.”

The rectangle in north city accounted for only a third of the city’s 205 homicides in 2017, and about a quarter of violent assaults, according to the Post-Dispatch analysis. All areas outside the rectangle accounted for the other 66% of homicides, three-quarters of aggravated assaults and, in total, about 80% of violent crime. The 7-square-mile rectangle made up 20% of all violent crime in the city, crime statistics reveal.

St. Louis police clarified in a recent statement to the Post-Dispatch that Hayden meant to explain that two police districts that make up a large swath of the North Side had been the locations for 67% of the city’s violent crime in 2017.

“Having gone to countless homicides and shooting scenes in those years, Chief Hayden was thoroughly familiar with the most historically violent neighborhoods in the North Patrol Division,” the statement said. “From his firsthand knowledge, the chief identified several of the most violent neighborhoods in the North Patrol Division and designed a map.”

Hayden then worked with the department’s Crime Analysis Unit, which reviewed five years of historical data, according to the department’s statement.

“The review confirmed that focusing on the designated area would likely be beneficial in our effort to reduce violent crime, and his focus would be time well-spent.”

But the inaccurate crime numbers that were initially released by police, and the subsequent introduction of Hayden’s Rectangle, highlight two concerns: Are there other instances where police commanders have relied on faulty data in introducing major policy changes, and is the police force using so-called hotspot policing in the manner that experts recommend?

St. Louis University sociologist Christopher Prener did his own study on Hayden’s Rectangle and also found discrepancies in the crime data.

“The stated justification for ‘hotspot’ policing in Hayden’s Rectangle, that two-thirds of violent crime occurred there in 2017, cannot be replicated using (the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s) own data,” he wrote in November. “Approximately 20 percent of violent crime occurred in that region of the city in 2017, along with approximately a third of homicides. For both homicides and violent crimes, a larger proportion of the city’s crimes occurred in North City but outside of Hayden’s Rectangle.”

According to Prener’s analysis, 45% of homicides in 2017 occurred north of Delmar Boulevard, but outside of the rectangle.

The department said Hayden’s Rectangle was never meant to be understood as hotspot policing, which is recommended by experts to be deployed in smaller, four- to six-block areas.

“Chief Hayden has never referred to his efforts in the ‘Rectangle’ as ‘hotspot’ policing,” the department said in its statement. “In fact, he has often referred to the ‘Rectangle’ as ‘the zone which never cools down.’ The chief believes that focusing attention in historically violent areas is validated by the significant reduction in violent crime experienced in 2018.”

Yet statistics show that there was an overall increase in crime from 2018 to last year, according to the Post-Dispatch analysis. Over a 10-month period in 2018, St. Louis police reported 4,660 instances of violent crime. For the same period last year, officials reported 4,863 cases. (The Post-Dispatch excluded sexual assaults from its analysis of violent crime statistics because the police data doesn’t include specific geographic locations for incidents of rape.)

Strategy lacks outside evaluation

St. Louis police had periodically asked criminal justice experts at the University of Missouri-St. Louis to evaluate crime trends in the city, as well as the department’s own programs. Rosenfeld, the criminology professor at the school, was one of those experts and said he hasn’t been contacted by the department to do an analysis since Hayden was appointed by St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson in 2017.

When Rosenfeld took a look at a previous hotspot policing strategy employed by the department, he found it to be effective. But he said those hotspots were different from Hayden’s Rectangle.

Hotspots, when used in policing, are “specific locations within the larger social environments of communities and neighborhoods, such as addresses, street blocks, or small clusters of addresses or street blocks,” according to the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University.

As a part of the rectangle strategy, St. Louis police helped Better Family Life identify smaller sections, roughly four- to six-block areas where the social services organization could concentrate its work, said James Clark, vice president of outreach for the nonprofit.

For Clark, who said he has been working on gun violence in St. Louis since 2005, he’s just happy the issue is finally getting some attention.

“Nothing has changed, and nothing has gotten better, in over 25 years,” Clark said. “If we can get 100 trained, uniformed and disciplined outreach workers in the neighborhoods, on the ground, five days a week, we can cut into the homicide rate.”

Smaller areas in St. Louis used for hotspot policing were what Rosenfeld and others gauged in a study published by the American Society of Criminology in 2014. The study was completed in partnership with the head of the St. Louis Police Crime Analysis Unit, Emily Blackburn.

The report was focused on non-domestic assaults and robberies involving a firearm and found hotspot policing was effective in reducing the number of those crimes. It was completed over nine months in 2012 using 32 hotspots throughout the city.

“We found for firearm assaults, the incident was way down over what it had been prior to the study,” Rosenfeld said. “For firearm robbery, it was down in both groups.”

Indeed, 360 fewer robberies occurred in 2012 than in the previous year, according to St. Louis police data.

The department said Hayden was present when Rosenfeld and others presented the information about hotspots to then-Chief Sam Dotson.

“In many instances, the crime reduction experienced in those smaller zones was short-lived,” the department said.

Aldermen see little change

Alderman Sam Moore’s 4th Ward is primarily inside the north rectangle. He said that while he appreciates Hayden’s character, shootings are still rampant in his ward.

“We need more visibility and we don’t have it yet,” Moore said. “We need our on duty patrolmen to patrol ... criminals know that by the time they commit their crime, police won’t show up, won’t be there.”

Alderman Sharon Tyus, D-1st Ward, said she doesn’t see enough police response in her ward, which is inside the rectangle, to nuisance crimes like illegal dumping. Things were better, Tyus said, when the city was split into nine police districts instead of six.

“I appreciate the concentration on murders and killings, but there are other quality-of-life issues that get missed in my community,” Tyus said. “You don’t get murders if you actually do community policing.”

At the 2018 community gathering, Hayden said he would keep the north rectangle measures in place and the department would bring the success of the rectangle strategy to areas of downtown and south city, close to Cherokee Street.

“I’m constantly requesting more resources from the police department (because) downtown is our front door,” said Alderman Jack Coatar, D-7th Ward. His ward includes the Soulard neighborhood and downtown.

“People from all over the world come downtown, and unfortunately they are the victims of crime, mostly property crime,” he said.

But violent crime and property thefts beginning in 2017 were already falling in the chosen areas near Cherokee Street and downtown, the Post-Dispatch analysis found.

The Cherokee Street rectangle is bounded by Cherokee and Gasconade streets to the north and south, and Oregon and South Spring avenues to the east and west. It is less than a square mile in size, smaller than the north rectangle.

The downtown rectangle is just under 2 square miles, also smaller than the north rectangle. It’s roughly bounded by Convention Plaza and Cole Street to the north and Chouteau Avenue to the south, and Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard and Jefferson Avenue to the east and west.

In January 2018, when Hayden gave the presentation and cited the statistics about the north rectangle, the department wasn’t capable of producing crime statistics for specific bounded areas of the city, such as the rectangles. A police spokeswoman previously said the department “did not have the adequate software” to break down crime numbers for specific areas. She told the Post-Dispatch on Friday that the issue has been corrected.

Residents not feeling the focus

Harold Crumpton, now retired, used to work with the Greater Ville Neighborhood Preservation Commission. The group worked with St. Louis police and had monthly meetings to help officers target their resources appropriately.

Crumpton supports Hayden’s rectangle strategy.

“I would support Hayden’s plans,” Crumpton said. “We need to be a little more patient with him.”

It would be easier to be patient if there were visible change, or evidence change is coming, residents said.

April Poole has lived in the north rectangle for the last 16 years. She has three children and believes crime in north St. Louis is bad, but it’s bad everywhere.

“There’s nothing you can do but move as fast as you can, all the time,” Poole said. “The police, they do their job, but you can’t stop everything.”

Macie Brothers lives with her three kids, ages 3, 4 and 5, on Ashland Avenue, also inside Hayden’s Rectangle. Brothers has lived in St. Louis her entire life but she wants to move her family to Texas, where she has family.

Crime in St. Louis seems like it’s getting worse, Brothers said, and she tries to be careful about where she takes her kids to play.

“Especially on the North Side, because you never know when there will be gunshots,” Brothers said.

Clark wants residents, and everyone in St. Louis, to know what he realized a long time ago.

“The current level of policing can’t even begin to address this crisis, so if we expect the police to be able to solve this, they can’t do it,” Clark said. “We have a neighborhood crisis, we have a family crisis, and we have a resource crisis.”

Rachel Rice and Josh Renaud of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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