ST. LOUIS — A troubling surge in homicides coupled with the coronavirus pandemic and civil unrest has led to one of the most challenging times in decades for St. Louis police as officer morale is “being drained,” police Chief John Hayden said Tuesday.
Officers often are rushing from one homicide scene to the next or from one protest to another, he said. “It’s just extremely demanding,” he said. “More demanding than I’ve seen as a St. Louis police officer in 33½ years.”
June was a particularly alarming month for homicides in St. Louis, with an average of about one killing a day. July looks to be even worse, with at least 22 recorded in the first 13 days, according to police figures.
Police responded late Tuesday to a report of four people dead, three in a house and one a block away, though details were scarce Tuesday night.
In an interview with the Post-Dispatch, Hayden laid out underlying factors behind most homicides: half are drug-related and many are rooted in domestic disputes or personal quarrels between people who know each other. Also, a lot of the victims and suspects have “strong criminal histories,” the chief said.
St. Louis is not alone in seeing a rise in killings, he noted. Homicides are up 24% this year over last, he said, but “we’re outpaced by Milwaukee, Chicago, Houston, Memphis and Philadelphia.”
Hayden insisted that the city is safe for people who aren’t involved in criminal or risky behavior.
“People always ask, ‘Is the city safe?’” Hayden said. Generally, “unless you are involved in some riskiness, contained in one of those categories, then you don’t have anything to worry about,” he said.
Hayden said the onus falls on the community, not just the police, to do more to curb violence.
“It cannot be a law enforcement piece only,” he said. “The social services are very helpful. Conflict resolution. We can’t be everywhere every time.”
Hayden said as the pandemic continues, people are financially strapped and he senses many “have shorter fuses.”
Hayden took the helm as chief 2½ years ago. Homicides dropped the first year and went up the second year, but the number was still below the homicide tally before Hayden became chief. In all of 2019, the city had 194 homicides. In 2018, the city had 186 homicides. In 2017, there were 205 homicides; in 2016, 188 homicides; and in 2015, 188 homicides.
The number of city homicides so far this year stood at 125 on Tuesday afternoon, compared to 99 at the same time last year.
“There’s been a big surge where we’re 26 homicides up, year-to-date,” he said. “This all started six weeks ago.”
Before the month of June, the city had one fewer homicide compared to the same period in 2019. But June then saw 32 homicides (compared with 22 in June 2019), police officials say. The number for this June differs from an accounting by the Post-Dispatch, which analyzed police data to find 30 deaths that month.
The city’s July homicide count so far is 22 — more than triple what it was for the first two weeks of July 2019.
“It’s driven by several factors,” Hayden said. “The pandemic has ... people stressed out and distressed, coupled with the civil unrest across the country, coupled with the fact that a lot of people have lost their jobs. Maybe it’s a perfect storm.”
Hayden said his department is short 125 officers, and the department is “strapped.”
“We’re trying to strike a balance between our need to respond to these violent situations, and we have to respond to all this civil unrest as well,” he said, referring to weeks of protests here and across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s Memorial Day death in police custody in Minneapolis.
Morale among the officers is “being drained,” the chief said. “They’re going for 12-hour days. They’re physically strapped, emotionally strapped, with people yelling at them, hollering at them and pushing them and shoving them.”
Some officers have been injured, including one who suffered an arm injury during a confrontation with protesters outside City Hall. At first it was feared the officer’s arm was broken but Hayden said it wasn’t.
“The morale is being challenged in a very significant way,” Hayden said.
Protesters in places like St. Louis and Florissant, meanwhile, have complained that police at times have been overly aggressive in their response to demonstrations.
Hayden said the “defund the police” movement gaining traction among some protesters nationally won’t help matters.
“I have never been to a community meeting in my career where citizens asked for less police presence,” he said. “The people who live in those communities want more police, and if 90% of my budget is salaries and benefits I don’t know how that phrase (defund) fits into the St. Louis challenge.”
Kim Bell • 314-340-8115 @kbellpd on Twitter firstname.lastname@example.org
Janelle O’Dea of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
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