ST. LOUIS — Violent crime has become more deadly in the city of St. Louis over the past decade, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Criminology professor Janet Lauritsen and criminology doctoral candidate Theodore Lentz analyzed years of St. Louis Police Department data and found the number of homicides per robbery or assault has risen by more than 50 percent over the past eight years, from 23 homicides per 1,000 incidents to 36.
The prevalence of gun use in St. Louis is a likely factor, the researchers say. One possibility, Lauritsen said, is that shooters are firing more bullets, or bullets of a higher caliber, and therefore shootings are more deadly than they used to be. It’s also possible, she said, that shooters are more interested in killing their targets now.
“Whatever is driving the use of guns is likely to have more lethal consequences,” she said of the study.
The study highlights gun use and violence in a city working hard to reduce crime and shake a bad national reputation. It also showcases just how difficult crime has been for police to curtail. Homicides in the city remain proportionately higher than in other cities of comparable population size.
“It used to be long ago, 30 years ago, no one carried a gun unless they were a shop owner or they had a reason,” Mayor Lyda Krewson said. “Now in the state of Missouri, you don’t have to even have a permit to carry a gun. That relaxation of gun laws has caused policing to be much harder.”
St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden touted a drop in homicides from 205 in 2017 to 187 in 2018 as a victory for the crime-fighting strategies he implemented when he became chief, particularly “Hayden’s Rectangle,” a high-crime sector of north St. Louis where law enforcement focused resources to decrease crime overall. Hayden has since expanded the “rectangle” program to include two more city sections.
Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards wasn’t sure robberies are more deadly. “Most carjackings are committed by youth. Juveniles,” he said. “Unless you are fighting or tussling over a gun, you’re less likely to be assaulted during a carjacking.”
He said, however, that the city has struggled to prosecute gun crimes. Crime prevention models such as Operation Ceasefire, used in cities across the country, rely on gun prosecution — but, in 2017, the state authorized Missourians to carry weapons without a permit.
The UMSL study found 94% of homicides in St. Louis involved a gun from 2015 to 2016, up from 78% of homicides in 2004. Similarly, more than 60% of assaults and robberies involved a gun from 2015 to 2016, compared with 43% in 2004.
Lethal gun violence in the city appears to have leveled off in the last couple of years, the researchers note, though guns are still involved in more than 90% of murders.
“It’s appearing to turn around,” Lauritsen said. “Something positive has happened.”
Lauritsen and Lentz couldn’t pinpoint exactly why assault and robbery became more deadly over the past decade. They think another factor, outside of gun use, contributed to the increase in deaths.
Lauritsen said she doesn’t want to create fear with the study. The limits of the data available make it hard to know which violent interactions are increasing in deadliness.
“It may just be heavily involved criminals robbing one another, which happens in drug transactions,” she said.
They hope their study, which was published online in May and will be included in this month’s edition of the academic journal “Homicide Studies,” leads to more research on the causes of the increasing deadliness of violent incidents.