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Daunting crime awaits new St. Louis mayor: ‘The mayor has got to care’

Daunting crime awaits new St. Louis mayor: ‘The mayor has got to care’

From the New Directions: Exploring the issues in the St. Louis City mayoral race series

ST. LOUIS — There’s arguably no greater concern for the four people aiming to become mayor of St. Louis than the violent crime that brought the deaths of more than 260 people last year.

The three Democratic candidates want to stem the homicide rate — one of the worst in North America — by finding policing alternatives and public health solutions to violent crime. They also see police partnerships with mental health providers and others as a critical component. The lone Republican in the race takes a counter view, believing that many of these efforts are a waste of money and that city leaders have neutered officers and restricted their efforts in nabbing criminals.

The task they face on the issue of crime alone is daunting.

“The mayor has got to care,” said Darren Seals, a longtime community activist who works to direct boys away from criminal behavior. “Whoever becomes mayor has got to be mayor for the whole city, not just the south side.”

Seals works with the highly touted Cure Violence program and other anti-crime efforts in the city and said the violence in north St. Louis and elsewhere is “taking over.”

The four candidates will square off March 2 in a first-round primary election after which the field will be narrowed to two. Those two will then move to the April 6 general election that will determine who becomes the city’s 47th mayor.

Republican candidate Andrew Jones, who’s a vice president at Southwestern Electric Cooperative, said it’s time to stop throwing money at Cure Violence — “another tax dollar-consuming program that fails miserably.” The focus, he argues, should be on giving police officers the proper authority to do their jobs.

“I am paid to solve problems,” Jones said. “What are we talking about? They’re deflections, distractions — they don’t hold water in solving a real problem.”

Aldermanic President Lewis Reed, Alderman Cara Spencer and City Treasurer Tishaura Jones, all Democrats, want strategies that change the trajectory for those who are identified as likely to turn to crime.

‘Focused deterrence’

Spencer and Tishaura Jones support “focused deterrence,” an approach that brings in people prone to criminal behavior and offers them a “carrot and stick,” as Spencer put it, providing resources if they turn away from crime but swift repercussions if they don’t. Spencer pointed to Oakland as a city that’s had success with such a focus.

“It does take a coordinated effort, which is missing from our current (crime fighting) strategy,” Spencer said. “What we have seen is political solutions to a complicated set of issues (and) ad hoc approaches to dealing with violence, which are not effective without comprehensive strategies that include all different departments, even outside the police department.”

Resources might include job placement, counseling and rental assistance. But those in the program are made aware that law enforcement is watching them closely.

“Much of the crime committed in our city, and in most cities, is committed by a select handful of individuals,” Jones said in speaking of focused deterrence. “This strategy can attack this problem head-on.”

Reed is a vocal supporter of Cure Violence, which launched with $7 million in funding from the city but got off to a sputtering start last year because of the pandemic. The program is operating in three St. Louis neighborhoods where “violence interrupters” calm tensions before they escalate into gun violence.

“I think it needs to be expanded,” Reed said. “It will allow us to begin to anticipate certain things. A lot of beefs you see breaking out in the neighborhood where someone dies, they’re starting on social media … (Cure Violence) will help us get out in front of those issues before they play themselves out with gunfire.”

While Jones said Cure Violence is a “tool in the toolbox,” Spencer said she doubts the success the program has claimed in other cities.

“I’m very committed to putting in place the focused deterrence model, and that is going to cost a fraction of the Cure Violence program,” Spencer said. “Before we increase funding to any program we need to take a look at whether or not it’s effective.”

Whatever the approach the winning candidate takes, it will need to be pursued aggressively. The number of homicides so far in the city is ahead of last year’s pace, one of the worst in the city’s history.

University of Missouri-St. Louis criminology professor Richard Rosenfeld studied St. Louis and 33 other U.S. cities and found that violent crime rates rose last year in all the cities he reviewed. But St. Louis stands out because it started with a higher rate of violent crime.

“The overall level of homicide in St. Louis is higher than any of the other cities we looked at,” Rosenfeld said. “We are seeing the increase in homicide concentrated in the very communities and population groups where traditionally (crime has) been quite high.”

Police operations

As part of their proposals to curtail gun violence, some of the candidates are pitching changes to police operations.

Spencer and Treasurer Jones said they would heed some of the recommendations of a report released in December that reviewed those operations and proposed structural improvements.

Part of Spencer’s plan includes hiring an “officer of equity and inclusion” who would ensure fairness across race and ranks in recruitment and in the disciplinary process for officers.

Reed wants to create smaller police districts so that officers better understand their patrol areas, and hopes to provide more thorough training.

“We should have a regular review (so) that the quality of service the department is chartered with delivering to the community gets continuously better over time,” Reed said. “A lot of components have to be put in place, and some of those things would be policy-based. Quite frankly, it’s better for it to be required by an ordinance.”

Andrew Jones is unwavering in his support of police, saying officers are doing a “fantastic job.” The problem lies with leadership, he said. Mayor Lyda Krewson needs to “direct resources to effect an arrest and get those people off the street,” but isn’t doing so for fear of political backlash, he contends.

Krewson on Friday called Jones’ argument “naive.” She said she supports crime-fighting efforts but says “that’s just the first step. Prosecutors and judges also have an important role to play.”

Nevertheless, Jones argues that city leaders “are not allowing police to do their job.” Police have intelligence on where most of the city’s serious offenses are taking place, he said, but their hands are tied.

“(Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner) is not issuing warrants if she doesn’t like the police officer involved,” Jones said. “Whether we have credible information, (we) leave this perpetual criminal out on the streets, terrorizing their communities. … You are going to be called racist because the police are doing their job correctly.”

Gardner has drafted an “exclusion list” of officers from whom her office won’t accept warrants because the credibility of those officers is in question or there’s some other concern with their testimony.

Jones said he would perform an audit of the police department to make sure spending in each division is appropriate and called the amount spent on police overtime “exorbitant.”

Helping officers succeed

The Democratic candidates signaled support for the recently launched “cops and clinicians” program, which sends social workers with police to certain mental health-related calls. Tishaura Jones said likely 50% of the city’s 911 calls don’t require police action and believes emergency response should be restructured and dispatchers retrained so that any response is in proportion to the emergency.

“Police officers are spending too much time responding to calls that could be answered by a civilian employee,” she said. “Reducing the number of calls officers respond (to) provides police officers with more time to respond to violent crime or engage in community policing.”

Spencer said she wants to revamp 911 and hire more dispatchers so that all 911 calls are promptly answered. Right now, someone calling dispatchers might only reach a recording. Spencer also wants to create a 311 nonemergency line. Her comments came before police officials on Wednesday announced a series of changes to their dispatch operations to reduce wait times.

Reed is touting the recent approval of the St. Louis Families Fund, which gives an additional $400,000 to CrimeStoppers so rewards for information on suspects are increased to encourage witnesses and others to come forward.

“In the city of St. Louis, our (case) closure rate in a good year is only 30%,” Reed said. “So 70% of the people who murder somebody in the city have done it with absolute impunity. There’s no cost for it. So it shouldn’t be a surprise when the behavior is repeated over and over again.”

Spencer and Tishaura Jones, meanwhile, have long sought the closing of the St. Louis Medium Security Institution, otherwise known as the workhouse, a deteriorating jail that activists have criticized for years. Inmates at the city’s other jail, the City Justice Center, were recently moved to the workhouse after some of them refused to follow orders by CJC guards and argued the center wasn’t doing enough to protect them from exposure to COVID-19.

Both Spencer and Jones maintain that the workhouse can be closed, and there are other options for keeping inmates safe. Jones cast doubt on whether the CJC was truly too crowded, and Spencer suggested some inmates could be housed in other facilities, such as those in surrounding counties.

Reed, though, called it “irresponsible” to close the workhouse when it was a better option to protect inmates from the coronavirus.

“Anybody in their right mind that is being honest should tell the public it is absolutely unsafe to overcrowd people at the CJC when we have the workhouse,” Reed said.

Andrew Jones said any decision to close the workhouse would be dependent on engineering studies and other reviews, and said to this point he hasn’t seen any indication its unsound.

Fighting crime from above

Moving from the ground to the skies, legislation has been proposed to allow the use of aerial surveillance as a crime-fighting tool.

Spencer and Treasurer Jones oppose the move, with Jones suggesting residents would be “traumatized” by the city using “tools of war.”

Andrew Jones said he’d consider it as long as it’s constitutional. Reed is open to the idea, he said, arguing that solving crime on behalf of grieving families is paramount.

In other areas, Spencer said she plans to expand the city’s problem properties unit and refocus it as a “problem landlord unit” that would rein in landlords in the city who habitually lease to “bad actors” who bring crime into neighborhoods, she said.

“We don’t have a concerted effort to go after (problem landlords),” she said. “That kind of program pays for itself. ... We’d be enforcing laws we already have on the books.”

Tishaura Jones wants to open “sobering centers” so that those with substance abuse problems have a safe place to become sober, and have places where drugs can be turned over without fear of arrest.

“I truly believe that if we want to solve gun violence as a region we have to declare it a public health crisis,” Jones said. “The response is different and then we’re looking at root causes. ... We have to develop an ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ mentality and all hands have to be on deck to provide ways to get at the root causes of the current crisis.”

Reed said he considers promoting economic growth and investing in the city’s recreation centers a part of public safety measures. A 2016 estimate put the capital needs for the city’s recreation centers at $10 million, Reed said, but another analysis would need to be done.

Andrew Jones said organizations that address inequities in the city already exist, and that the public safety conversation should focus on ensuring police have the tools to reign in violent criminals.

“We are conflating these services (and) actual boots on the ground, police doing their job effectively,” he said. “The St. Louis city police department is short on manpower. How are we going to redirect a budget that needs to be directed at getting violent criminals off the street? (My opponents) ignore all of the fantastic professional organizations and agencies that exist that are doing a phenomenal job working with those with mental health issues, with the homeless, those with socioeconomic problems.”

For these various reasons Jones said he didn’t agree with calls by criminal justice reformists to “defund the police” and doesn’t see a need for wholesale police reform efforts.

Spencer said there needs to be more transparency in use-of-force investigations to build more trust in the community. Tishaura Jones also supports greater openness with police disciplinary practices.

Reed’s view was similar.

“We will not do anything in terms of defunding police that will leave us less safe (but) there’s little to no transparency right now,” Reed said. “So absolutely, improvement could be made in those arenas.”

The candidates on crime

Topic Andrew Jones Tishaura Jones Lewis Reed Cara Spencer
Aerial surveillance Depends on if it's legal No Willing to consider Not under the current proposal
Cure Violence Eliminate Waiting to see preliminary results Needs more funding Skeptical of program
Police reform measures Largely opposes broad changes More transparency in police disciplinary reviews More transparency in police operations More transparency in use-of-force investigations
Workhouse Must review engineering studies, other analyses Close it Must not immediately close it Close it
2021 mayoral candidates

The four candidates for St. Louis mayor in the March 2 primary are, from left: Andrew Jones, Tishaura Jones, Lewis Reed and Cara Spencer.

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