ST. LOUIS • Amid a sixth day of protest after a police officer was found not guilty of murder in a 2011 fatal shooting, family and friends of another man killed by police gathered outside City Hall on Wednesday.
On what would have been Isaiah "Vinny" Hammett's 22nd birthday, they served birthday cake and tried to draw attention to what they believe was his murder by police earlier this year.
Hammett was one of eight people St. Louis police have fatally shot so far this year — the highest number of fatal police shootings by city police in the past decade, with more than three months left in the year. There were five people killed by St. Louis police in all of 2016.
In addition to those killed, police have shot and wounded seven other people this year. The department did not have statistics available showing how many times their officers fired at someone but missed their target, nor could they provide numbers on how many times officers had been shot at or had guns pointed at them.
Police say all of those killed by officers were armed. One of them stabbed an officer before being fatally shot. The remaining seven pointed a gun at officers before they were killed, according to the police department.
And three of those, including Hammett, actually fired at officers before they were fatally shot, according to police.
But Hammett's family does not believe the police when they say he fired at officers with an AK-47 when they entered his grandfather's home to serve a search warrant.
Police response following Friday's announcement of a not-guilty verdict in the murder trial of former officer Jason Stockley in the 2011 shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith has not helped restore faith for Hammett's family in the police department's ability to independently investigate their son's death.
His mother, Gina Torres, wrote a letter to Mayor Lyda Krewson, citing examples of "out-of-control militarized attacks" during protests and noting that Interim Chief Lawrence O'Toole was also in charge of the SWAT team that killed her son.
"Can you understand, mother to mother, why I despair of ever seeing justice?" she wrote to the mayor. "Especially after the Stockley verdict?"
More crime, more police shootings?
The fact that police shootings are up is well known among the ranks, said Lt. Col. Rochelle Jones, who oversees the department’s Force Investigation Unit. As a result, officers have been on heightened alert to remain tactically sound, wait for backup instead of approaching a potentially dangerous situation alone and undergoing training on how to better communicate in stressful situations.
Jones attributed the rise in police shootings to the rise in violent crime. She noted aggravated assaults in the city are up about 5.6 percent this year compared to last, and aggravated assaults with guns are up 16 percent.
In 2016, there were 188 homicides in St. Louis — the same amount as 2015, together the highest homicide tallies in decades. The city has been running slightly ahead of that pace this year.
“There is a rise in violence. Guns are easily accessible. We have open carry laws, and folks are out there carrying their guns,” Jones said. “What do you do when someone pulls a gun on you? You can’t pull your Taser.”
Criminologist David Klinger, an expert on police shootings at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, also says the rising number of police shootings isn't surprising given the crime rate.
Simply put, the more violent a community becomes, the more chances police have of encountering armed criminals, he said.
"As crime rates go up and down, so do police shootings," he said.
But the Rev. Phillip Duvall, who has been active in lobbying city officials to prosecute Stockley and in the protests that have followed the verdict, says blaming the increase in police shootings on a rise in crime is a "cop out,"
"It's is like saying, 'We've got to be more violent to protect ourselves and we're more justified in killing you because you're out there with more weapons.' That's status quo, that's not leadership. That's eye for an eye.
"Community policing, if done effectively and correctly would lower crime," Duvall said.
Jones said the department does have a community engagement bureau to try and promote positive interactions with officers and citizens rather than only during a crisis.
“We can’t do this alone,” she said. “We need to work with the community, not against the community.”
Duvall says activists also have heard police leaders say their job is getting more dangerous.
"The police say, 'We've got to be more cautious,' but this story tells me they're not being too cautious," Duvall said.
Denise Hollinshed of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.