ST. LOUIS — On the last day of 2020, St. Louis leaders read 262 names aloud from a church podium — each name representing a person killed in the city over the previous 12 months. Their deaths brought the city’s homicide rate to a level 30% higher than any of the past 50 years, records show.
“2020 has been a very difficult year on so many different levels,” St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson said at the 29th annual New Year’s Eve vigil for homicide victims. “But we’re all here today because we are hurting from the violence in our community. We are hurting from the trauma it causes.”
St. Louis’ homicide rate hit 87 murders per 100,000 residents in 2020, the highest on record since 1970. The figure exceeds the previous top rate of 69 set in 1993, when the growing number of killings made headlines in local and national news.
That year registered the most total homicides in the city — at 267 — but St. Louis has about 87,000 fewer residents now.
This past year also brought St. Louis County its most homicides — 91 — in the past 15 years, according to the latest numbers from the Missouri Highway Patrol. The county’s homicide rate, however, was far lower than the city’s at about 9 homicides for every 100,000 people.
St. Louis police Lt. Col. Rochelle Jones spoke on behalf of the department at the victims’ vigil Thursday at Williams Temple Church of God in Christ, on Union Boulevard. Jones said the department had “hopeful anticipation” that 2021 would see fewer killings in the city.
”They were mothers, fathers, sisters and friends,” she said of the victims.
Those killed in the city include 17 children younger than 18. Among them were kindergartner David Birchfield III, 6, who was shot in February while riding in his family’s car and Victrail Mora, 14, killed in August in front of his mother’s home in the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood.
Also killed were Carieal J. Doss, 18, a senior at Parkway West High School who had been set to play basketball next fall at Illinois State University, St. Louis police Officer Tamarris Bohannon, who was killed during a standoff in the line of duty in August, and retired St. Louis police Capt. David Dorn, who was shot while working security at a pawn shop as it was looted in June.
City leaders and criminologists said the economic, civic and interpersonal stress the coronavirus pandemic has created likely have driven a nationwide spike in crime in the nation’s large cities. But in St. Louis, by 2019 the homicide rate has already topped large U.S. cities for six years straight, making a spike particularly deadly here.
Jeanette Culpepper started the vigil for homicide victims in 1991 through her group Families Advocating Safe Streets, to mourn the murder of her son, Curtis Weldon Johnson Jr. She said she feels the connection between the pain of the virus and homicides particularly strongly.
In 2020, Culpepper’s great-niece was killed by a reckless driver, whom she believes was drag racing, and her sister, who used to hand out water at the vigil, died in April of COVID-19.
This year, attendance at the vigil was limited to a few masked city leaders and members of the media. “It’s been a hard, hard year,” Culpepper said this week. “But we’ve been doing this so long. I know right now there’s a lot of people mourning out there this year, so we weren’t about to stop.”
The spike in violent crime in the region tracks closely with the end of the first round of stay-at-home orders from the pandemic — and that’s not just in St. Louis.
Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, co-wrote an ongoing review of crime data in 28 U.S. cities this year for the Council on Criminal Justice. It found violent crime rose sharply across the cities beginning in late May.
“St. Louis sees a similar spike that we saw elsewhere, but what’s different is its starting level was already so high,” Rosenfeld said.
Rosenfeld’s study found property crime dropped significantly in the cities, including in St. Louis where property crime was down about 6%.
“You see crimes like shoplifting dropping because retail stores are closed, and with more people at home there’s been a drop in home burglaries,” Rosenfeld said. “But as to what drove the spike in violent crime, there’s still lots of unanswered questions.”
Rosenfeld is continuing to study what effect, if any, widespread protests that may have eroded trust in police this year along with affected police resources may have had on crime rates.
A strain on police resources with staff out or quarantined because of the pandemic, and stress on residents caused by the pandemic may also have played a role, Rosenfeld said.
He suggested that St. Louis needs more officers on the street in hyper-targeted enforcement areas that respond to daily or weekly trends in crime data.
“We need to treat this like an emergency situation,” he said. “… These are rates most U.S. cities haven’t seen for more than 10 years.”
St. Louis police Chief John Hayden told the Post-Dispatch this year that officer morale was “being drained” by the unprecedented workload. In July alone, the city saw 53 homicides, the most in a single month Hayden could remember.
In July, Hayden called that stretch “more demanding than I’ve seen as a St. Louis police officer in 33½ years.”
Hayden earlier this year added six detectives and a sergeant to the homicide unit, which now has 31 detectives and seven sergeants. Each detective has a caseload of about 10 homicides from this year, the department said Thursday.
The work of homicide detectives also has been disrupted by the pandemic, Lt. Scott Aubuchon, head of the homicide unit, told the Post-Dispatch in September.
“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.”
Where violence hits
As in past years, violence was intensely concentrated in the St. Louis region in 2020. Roughly 90% of city homicide victims were Black, according to St. Louis police data. That’s slightly above the 88% average for the previous four years.
North St. Louis also encompasses nine of the 10 neighborhoods with the highest homicide totals: Walnut Park West and Jeff-Vander-Lou top the list with 15, followed by Baden and Hamilton Heights, both with 12. The neighborhood with the most killings in south St. Louis was Dutchtown with eight.
St. Louis leaders responded to the intense concentration of gun violence by launching Cure Violence, a Chicago-based program operating in cities around the world including Baltimore, Milwaukee and New York City. It treats violence like a contagious disease by attempting to prevent its spread in high-crime neighborhoods. It hires “violence interrupters,” people with close ties to the neighborhoods where they work, who try to divert residents from violence through employment, counseling and other aid.
The program had fully launched in three neighborhoods — Wells-Goodfellow, Walnut Park and Dutchtown— by the end of 2020.
James Clark heads the Urban League Cure Violence program in Walnut Park, where its team made its first door-to-door trips through the neighborhood to find people at high risk of violence in the final weeks of 2020.
Clark said he was confident the program would make strides to reduce violence in those areas, but would need to be expanded.
“It’s like taking a sponge and trying to absorb a sink full of water while the faucet is still running,” he said.
The program is overseen by the St. Louis Department of Public Health, led by acting health director Dr. Fredrick Echols.
Echols said the city will evaluate the performance of Cure Violence in the three pilot neighborhoods before considering expansion.
”We do see gun violence as a public health issue,” he said. “And unfortunately we see that a lot of areas hit by gun violence are also the most affected by other health issues. It’s the areas where preexisting conditions made COVID-19 worse. It’s where economic indicators have been worsened by the pandemic. We have to work to make sure these places are not forgotten.”