WASHINGTON • St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson told the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Wednesday that his city’s courts needed to steer gun-crime offenders toward jobs, education and substance abuse treatment to help them avoid offending again.
“We have to get at those issues if we are going to get at violence,” Dotson said during a forum on “reducing violence and strengthening police-community trust” during the mayors’ annual gathering here.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and Dotson came for an 84th annual winter meeting that is heavily overlaid with violence, strife and protest in major cities stemming from rising gun violence and police-involved shootings. Joining Dotson on the panel was Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose handling of a fatal shooting by a police officer has led to calls for his resignation.
Protesters, some of them holding signs calling for Emanuel to resign, interrupted a news conference led by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, whose city has also been marked by protests and police trials over the death of a man in police custody.
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But the panel, which included Dotson, Emanuel, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and National Urban League President Marc Morial avoided getting into the specific case in Chicago: the fatal shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald by white police officer Jason Van Dyke. A Chicago prosecutor has charged Van Dyke with murder, but the calls for Emanuel to resign have escalated.
None of that came up in the session, as the panelists instead focused on the need to improve police and community relations, to target repeat offenders, and to step up programs to keep children in school and provide summer jobs.
Dotson said some of St. Louis’ challenges — it had 188 murders last year, 179 committed with firearms — came from an urban-rural split in the state. He said municipalities should have more power to enforce their own gun laws.
“We have a state that has incredibly liberal gun laws,” he told a ballroom full of mayors, their staff and corporate sponsors of the three-day conference. “They are controlled by people that don’t live in the urban centers. They (pass) legislation to get re-elected. … We are left with the proliferation of guns.”
He said his office was pushing for an “armed offender docket” in St. Louis courts to “track the successes, to become experts in dealing with individuals that are in a cycle of violence, that don’t have the education, have substance issues. Become experts in that.”
Morial said part of the problem facing cities was that an “organized element of drugs and gangs” now operates across many cities, much as organized crime did starting in the 1930s, and that only a few major police departments had the sophistication and budgets to infiltrate them.
He and the others on the panel called for more cooperation with the FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency, and for more money for summer jobs and early education programs. But a Congress that has just forged a contentious budget agreement, and is now facing a higher-than-estimated deficit this fiscal year, is not in a spending mode.
Landrieu said the first step to dealing with rising violence and gun deaths was to admit the problem exists.
“You have to run to the fire on this,” said the New Orleans mayor, whose police department has operated under multiple agreements with the federal Department of Justice to improve policing. “It should be clear to everybody in this room that something has gone wrong in America. At the moment, we have dust-ups all over the country. Those are not just one-offs.”
Dotson told the conference that the St. Louis police department was about 36 percent black, compared with a population that is 50 percent African-American.
“Make a long-term commitment to diversity and give them the tools and the training,” Dotson said, when asked about his police advice to other cities. He said that his office received 300,000 calls to 911 every year, and that “every one of those has the potential to be a Michael Brown or Eric Garner,” a reference to the deaths of two black men in encounters with police in Ferguson and in New York, in 2014.
Dotson drew one of the session’s few applause lines when he said: “We have to look at the communities that we serve and be committed to it, and realize that it is a small number of people that commit the crimes, and focus on the people that commit the crimes, and not the race.”
Slay said Dotson was on the panel because the St. Louis chief had gained a reputation around the country as an expert on community policing and reform. He said he and Dotson had traveled to Sacramento, Calif.; Little Rock, Ark.; and Washington to talk about the city’s police policies.