ST. LOUIS — For too many years, St. Louis has had one of the highest murder rates in the world. This year will be no different. The city has seen more than 225 people killed, putting it at risk of reaching a homicide rate not seen in decades.
Other categories of crime are on the rise as well, with aggravated assaults up nearly 10% from January to September and aggravated assaults involving a gun up 18%.
Much of the script has remained the same from one year to another. Community leaders say the city needs to stop tinkering in the margins, redrafting one proposal after another in a push to curtail the violence.
“Too often, for too long, St. Louis has tried to address gun violence and crime from 3,000 feet,” the Urban League’s James Clark said. “We’ve studied it. We’ve analyzed it. We have done surveys. We’ve done focus groups. I’ve watched St. Louis exercise at a 3,000-foot level for 15, 20 years … and we haven’t taken one step on the ground.”
It’s unfair to point fingers at a beleaguered and understaffed St. Louis police department as the city is crippled by a startling amount of gun violence, criminologists and policy experts say. They argue that prosecutors and police have no control over the underlying causes of crime. One former federal official in St. Louis, Richard Callahan, said the weather has a larger impact on crime than law enforcement. So how can the city tamp down violence? Many experts believe it starts with sustained public funding and initiatives whose effectiveness can be measured over time.
But many anti-violence efforts may only receive funding for a handful of years, making it difficult to determine if their approach was worthwhile. Foundations and other funders want to see results showing their money was well-placed. Without those metrics, they’re less inclined to give, experts say.
‘What is violence?’
And just a discussion of gun violence in St. Louis can become mired in semantics.
“What is violence?” said Vontriece McDowell, outgoing director for the nonprofit Alive and Well, which addresses the risks associated with stress and trauma in a community. “Is it gun violence? Is it the inability to be able to provide kids with quality food? Is it dilapidated, boarded up houses? Is it horrible real estate and rental opportunities? Are we talking about unemployment?”
“Somebody might say many people in this city have been victims of violence for hundreds of years. There’s a lot that’s structural, a lot that’s systemic,” she said.
In an effort to understand the work being done by dozens of groups to address gun violence, the Post-Dispatch spent weeks speaking with community activists, policy experts, law enforcement personnel and others about what programs are effective and what steps are needed to make neighborhoods safer. The accounts are part of the Missouri Gun Violence Project, a partnership with The Kansas City Star and the Missouri Foundation for Health looking at the causes, consequences and possible solutions to gun violence in St. Louis and the state.
Pinpointing what works in driving down gun violence is difficult. Callahan, a former U.S. attorney, said prosecutors and police have no control over the underlying causes.
“Expecting law enforcement to affect the crime rate is about the same as expecting practicing doctors to control the COVID virus rate,” he said.
Daniel W. Webster, director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, took aim at a federal initiative known as Operation Legend, launched this summer in St. Louis and other cities. Authorities said it cut homicides in St. Louis by 49%, an assertion that Webster said was “laughable.”
The claim was an example of drawing conclusions from two data points and assuming that whatever happened caused the change, he said. “Nobody with any scientific background would make such an inference because you’d have to rule out a bunch of other things,” Webster said, like did crime fall elsewhere during the same period?
“There’s no evidence that federal prosecution of gun crimes has any impact on violent crime,” Webster said.
People want easy, quick answers, he said. ”Frankly, it takes a lot of good data and a lot of good scientists to come up with estimates, and even then we swallow our pride and admit that there’s tons of uncertainty about any estimate that we put forward,” he said.
Webster said St. Louis has “all the recipes for violence.” For instance, there’s generational poverty and “horrible” gun laws that make it easy for people to obtain firearms. It’s also a city by itself, not situated in a surrounding county that would provide a larger tax base and more resources.
A surrounding, lower-density area would also moderate the crime numbers, he said.
Oakland sets an example
Webster said those tackling violent crime in St. Louis should look to Oakland, California. “I think they’ve gotten it right,” he said.
In 2012, a voter-approved public safety tax provided a steady source of revenue for various prevention resources and programs, including for housing and jobs. The city now also has a Department of Violence Prevention.
Officials then adopted an intervention model that has the best track record of anything that’s been studied to date, Webster said. Known by phrases like “focused deterrence” and “group violence reduction strategies,” it begins with law enforcement identifying the people and groups driving the worst violence in the city.
Those people then get this message: You’re hurting your families and your communities, and we’re going to make you stop but we’d rather help you stop. They are told of various social services that are available to turn them away from violence.
The third component involves enlisting “the moral voice of the community,” perhaps grandmothers or ex-offenders or gang members. As Webster explains, they say, “Hey guys, we really love you. We don’t want to bury you. We don’t want to raise your kids when you’re gone. We don’t want to visit you in prison.”
Law enforcement needs enough resources to figure out what kind of pressure can be applied on the offending group or person. If a group is selling illicit drugs, then law officers are going to make life miserable for anyone in that drug crew and send a message, Webster said. “We’re going to look the other way on certain things. But we’re not OK with people getting killed. We’re not OK with people getting shot.”
Webster said street outreach and programs like Cure Violence, which launched earlier this year in St. Louis, should be part of that process. “It’s all geared toward a variety of behavioral and social support with law enforcement as the effective deterrent to gun violence.”
After experiencing declines in some categories of violent crime, however, Oakland has seen a jump this year. Police say the coronavirus pandemic, gangs and the proliferation of guns interrupted the anti-violence efforts, the San Francisco Chronicle reported last month.
Law enforcement push
St. Louis has seen a stream of efforts over the years to bite into crime, including federal pushes like Operation Legend and Project Safe Neighborhoods, which targets the most pressing violent offenses.
St. Louis police Chief John Hayden in 2018 announced his rectangle strategy, which focused police resources on a portion of north St. Louis where he said two-thirds of the city’s violent crime was occurring. At the end of 2018, Hayden claimed victory, pointing to a drop in homicides and other types of crime, and expanded the program to include a portion of downtown and South City. But the strategy’s second year didn’t bear the same fruit and homicides slightly increased.
Hayden told the Post-Dispatch that police have expanded that geographical focus, establishing “mission zones” based on crime data.
But he said that because many shootings are drug-related or a result of personal disputes, it can be challenging “to intervene in some very personal circumstances.”
Hayden said he needs to hire more officers and state lawmakers need to require permits for firearms. He also said there needs to be a focus on addressing longstanding, systemic social problems through groups like Better Family Life, Cure Violence and the Urban League.
Gov. Mike Parson this summer called a special session of the Legislature to address crime in St. Louis, with a focus on getting tougher on youth and gun crime and ending the requirement that police officers live within city limits. Eliminating the residency requirement is seen as one way to boost recruitment for a force that’s down about 140 officers.
Left unaddressed by the Legislature were more complex issues, like root causes of crime such as poverty.
Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, have been focused on filing more gun charges for years. They targeted the area’s so-called “top shooters.” And now investigators, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, are collecting spent cartridges to identify the guns used most often in committing crimes in the city.
Despite Webster’s criticism of Operation Legend, which brought with it an influx of federal agents to the city along with $1 million, St. Louis Department of Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards said the operation proved beneficial. Edwards added that 10 St. Louis sheriff’s deputies are also walking a beat downtown on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.
But most recognize that these efforts are relatively small components of a much broader equation.
“You can only do so much to fight crime,” said Reginald Harris, a former federal prosecutor who ran Project Safe Neighborhoods in St. Louis. “What causes someone to want to sell crack or heroin? What puts people in hopeless situations?”
Spiraling crime for decades was addressed by adding police and prosecutors. But Harris said he’s starting to see agreement on the need for other efforts — for more and better housing, superior schools and businesses in the city that have “jobs that allow people to make a decent, respectful living and have dignity.” Others tout re-entry programs to give people work when they’re released from prison, and mental health or drug courts to address the problems that contributed to their incarceration in the first place.
“Everyone is saying you can’t prosecute your way out of the problem,” Harris said.
One of the latest efforts to address crime in St. Louis in a different way is the Cure Violence program, which has received $7 million from the city.
“Cure Violence is the biggest investment the city has made in a very long time, and it’s not even the full cost of the entire city — it’s just three neighborhoods,” said Serena Muhammad, director of strategic initiatives with the St. Louis Mental Health Board. “The investment has been pretty anemic. Most violence prevention work is funded by private donors.”
Cure Violence, which has claimed success against gun violence in cities like Philadelphia and New York City, got off to a slow start in St. Louis because of the onset of the pandemic, operators said, so it has hardly made a dent in a violent year.
The method focuses on a hyper-local level, sending workers into a neighborhood to build relationships, cool conflicts before they escalate and change community attitudes around violence.
Clark, with the Urban League, said, “The Cure Violence model is the way forward … (but) St. Louis has 12 neighborhoods that need the Cure Violence model.”
“We will see a drastic reduction in crime within 18 months to three years, but it has to be scaled up,” he said.
Researchers who studied its impact, though, have cautioned that the program has limitations. So-called “violence interrupters” can be more effective at slowing the rate of gun violence in geographically isolated neighborhoods, for instance, rather than in neighborhoods where outsiders often come and go. Several Cure Violence centers in Baltimore were closed after they had disappointing results.
A study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health credited Safe Streets Baltimore with preventing about five homicides and 35 nonfatal shootings from its inception in 2007 to October 2010. The John Jay Research and Evaluation Center measured the program’s effectiveness in portions of the Bronx and Brooklyn and found that “the presence of Cure Violence in a neighborhood was associated with greater reductions in social norms that support violence when compared with similar neighborhoods without Cure Violence programs.”
City and federal officials repeatedly praise de-escalation efforts as one of the effective tools against crime, as well as housing and job programs.
“We don’t have a lot of random, assaultive behavior in the city of St. Louis,” said Edwards, the city’s public safety director. The violence is targeted or occurs between people in relationships.
“People no longer walk away from an argument,” he said. “People are no longer able to talk through a disagreement.”
The Urban League’s Serving Our Streets initiative, introduced earlier this year, is another such de-escalation effort. Clark said $1 million recently received from the state will “boil down to eight months of resource delivery.”
Jeff Jensen, the U.S. attorney based in St. Louis, praised groups like Better Family Life and the Urban League, which has a jobs program and efforts like Save Our Sons. He also noted the work of the Fathers & Families Support Center, saying he’s heard repeatedly that, “If there is not a father involved in a child’s life, they’re more likely to be a criminal.”
Fathers & Families, which started in 1997, has six locations now. CEO Halbert Sullivan said the program helps fathers and mothers find and keep jobs, financially support their children and establish a relationship with those children. The group also offers life skills training for teenagers and others.
Sullivan said officials have been supportive, “but I have yet to figure out how to turn that into the kind of financial resources we need.”
Of the group’s income, 48% comes from federal grants and other sources — about $2.6 million in 2019 — and another 38% from foundations, corporations and people.
Children without fathers in their lives are 20 times more likely to end up in prison, 10 times more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs, and nine times more likely to drop out of school, Sullivan said.
He said poverty is the underlying cause of most crime and that there’s no magic wand that can be waved to end episodes of violence.
“There is no solution right now to most of the crimes that occur in communities like St. Louis,” Sullivan said. “The solution’s got to be worked on.”
Another community group, the Organization for Black Struggle, recently launched a program called Haki, where volunteers go to crime scenes in the Wells-Goodfellow area and talk with victims’ relatives and anyone likely to retaliate. Project coordinator Lisa LaGrone has gone to shooting scenes to attempt to quell tensions.
“I just walk up to them,” LaGrone said. “I say, ‘Listen, I’m trying to help y’all. Look, the police want to lock y’all up, and I’m trying to help change some of y’alls behavior.’ I’ve been out here. I know what it is. Sometimes you have to get street with them. You have to get on their level.”
OBS plans to expand the Haki program, she said, but still must form a financial plan to accomplish it.
The St. Louis Area Violence Prevention Commission, which coordinates among local groups to achieve violence reduction goals, counts among its members the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office, corrections officials, the health departments of both the city and St. Louis County, police agencies, the United Way and others.
The commission this year hopes to expand trauma counseling services, create recommendations for law enforcement accountability, map out hospital and police data on assaults, and stake out a path forward for racial equity, among other goals.
The St. Louis Mental Health Board’s Muhammad, who also works with Cure Violence and the Violence Prevention Commission, said the commission has set up resources for victims of nonfatal shootings who call 211. But the longer-term goals make it difficult to dredge up financing.
“Funders like to support projects where they can see concrete end results,” Muhammad said. “Prevention does not allow that to happen. You fund early childhood education, you can’t say you prevented this baby from becoming the next murderer. Funders like to be able to say, ‘We identified a person that has a gun and we prevented them from using it.’”
Muhammad said the commission’s efforts are further upstream — it aims to change environmental factors over time so that children can’t easily access firearms, are less predisposed to violence and have more opportunity to succeed.
Most anti-violence budgets for nonprofits and others don’t exceed seven figures a year, she said.
“It’s not like there’s $50 million invested in violence prevention,” Muhammad said.
The St. Louis police department has a budget of nearly $138 million this fiscal year, not including money going into the retirement system. Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner’s budget is nearly $7.6 million. The city Corrections Division got $16.2 million to run two jails.
Millions more in federal dollars fund the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the various federal law enforcement agencies that work here.
U.S. Attorney Jensen said his office uses crime data to figure out the most distressed areas and asks local groups to focus on those areas.
Jensen also lauded the federal probation office in St. Louis, saying, “Their stats are ridiculous compared to the rest of the country,” referring to the low number of federal offenders who are arrested again or who violate their probation. He said it was typically “because they got them some good job.”
Edwards, the city public safety director, sees the engagement by myriad community groups and enforcement officials at various levels, and says he’s heartened and upbeat.
“I do see a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not a train,” he said.
Josh Renaud of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
In this Series
Gun violence in Missouri: 'There's no war going on, but if you count up the body count ... you might think there was'
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