ST. LOUIS • Homicides in St. Louis were up in 2013 while overall crime fell last year for the seventh straight year, St. Louis police say.
Though criminologists warn that homicides don’t tell the whole story of crime in a city, it’s a statistic that catapults the need to reduce violent crime to the top of Police Chief Sam Dotson’s 2014 priority list.
“I think the community needs to know that we see the same things that they do,” Dotson said Monday. “That violence is a problem. That crime is a challenge for us. But crime is a regional issue. Criminals don’t recognize city-county borders. We have to approach crime as a regional problem.”
That means drawing on contributions from prosecutors and judges, probation and parole officers and cooperation from citizens to help prevent crime, Dotson said.
City police released data Monday saying major crimes fell 5.4 percent overall last year compared with 2012. Crime statistics from St. Louis County police were not available Monday.
The decline in St. Louis in 2013 marks the seventh time since 2006 that overall crime went down, police say. That year, crime rose in nearly every category except murder. The 8,605 violent crimes recorded that year represented the highest total since 1998.
Fast-forward to 2013, and most crimes are trending downward. Homicides, with 120 in 2013, was one of two categories that went up. There were 113 homicides in 2011 and 2012. Dotson said last year’s total was still below the five-year average of 136 for the years 2008-12.
He said most killings were related to drugs or drug money. Ninety-eight of last year’s homicide victims were men. At least 105 were African-American.
Rick Rosenfeld, a criminologist with the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said homicide totals didn’t tell the bigger picture of crime.
“The good news about homicide is that it’s relatively rare compared to nonfatal assault, robbery and other serious crimes,” he said. “We should expect the homicide numbers to fluctuate year by year. So I don’t attribute too much significance to the small increase in homicides.”
The other rising category was rape, up 67.3 percent in 2012. The huge increase, however, is not surprising to police because the Justice Department expanded its definition of rape to include various types of sexual assaults that were not previously included.
Dotson said he analyzed 2013 rape statistics in late summer or early fall using the old, narrower definition, and said, “there is no significant difference in that category. It’s about the same.”
Robberies fell 18 percent in 2012 and have declined each of the past five years, according to department statistics. Nonfatal shootings dropped 11.3 percent to the lowest level since 1968. However, the city population has dropped significantly since then.
Property crimes, which include burglary, larceny, auto theft and arson, fell 4.2 percent, the department said.
Rosenfeld said the 2013 city statistics were not unusual given downward crime trends across the country.
“There’s no doubt the city is safer than it was some years ago on the whole,” Rosenfeld said. “There’s also little question that there are areas of St. Louis in which crime remains unacceptably high. My hope is that the police department continues to focus on those areas that remain stubbornly high.”
Rosenfeld said he believed hotspot policing had helped reduce city crime. The first city neighborhood the department targeted last year as part of its hotspot strategy was College Hill on the city’s north side, where a feud had led to several shootings. The department has since sent officers to other high-crime neighborhoods including Fountain Park, Lewis Place, Gravois Park and Shaw.
Dotson, too, credited the decreases in part to hotspot policing. Last year also marked the first time since the Civil War that the city assumed control of its police department. The state-appointed Police Board was dissolved at the end of August after St. Louisans voted to bring the police department under the city’s wing.
That move, Dotson said, made it possible to plan a redistricting of the police department, which will take effect Jan. 27. The department’s nine districts will shrink to six with the goal of shortening response times, balancing workloads for the department’s 1,325 officers and improving overall policing.
Rosenfeld said the redistricting plan was “way overdue,” given the city’s historical population declines, and would help the department become more efficient. But he said people probably wouldn’t perceive much change once the new lines were drawn.
The good news, Rosenfeld said, is that crime is continuing to fall in the city.
“The multi-year decline in St. Louis is quite promising,” he said.