Editorial: Targeted policing must be guided by accurate information, not defensiveness

Editorial: Targeted policing must be guided by accurate information, not defensiveness

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Two years ago, St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden presented what sounded like a solid, data-driven plan to address violent crime at its core: a seven-square-mile section of north St. Louis that, he said, was responsible for two-thirds of the city’s murders.

But a new analysis by the Post-Dispatch’s Janelle O’Dea finds that the area known as “Hayden’s Rectangle” wasn’t, in fact, responsible for anything like that portion of homicides. Employing data-driven policing strategies is certainly a valid way of approaching the violent-crime crisis, but only if the data being used is accurate.

Hayden deserves credit for seeking innovative solutions to address violent crime after taking on what Newsweek called possibly “the toughest job in America” in late 2017. There were more than 200 homicides in St. Louis that year. With police perpetually understaffed, Hayden sought to target the violence with albeit limited resources. The city’s north side has long suffered elevated violent-crime rates; focusing stepped-up policing there did (and still does) make sense.

But early in 2018, Hayden publicly identified one specific section of the north side — a roughly rectangular area between Goodfellow Boulevard, Vandeventer Avenue, Martin Luther King Drive and West Florissant Avenue — as being responsible for an astounding 67% of the city’s homicides and 50% of all violent crime. He ordered some 50 additional officers to patrol that area and beefed up the presence there of SWAT, Mobile Reserve and Traffic Safety units.

It sounded right, based on his stunning statistics from within that rectangle. One problem: That number wasn’t accurate. Not even close.

As O’Dea reported Sunday, that rectangle isn’t responsible for two-thirds of the city’s homicides but only about one-third, according to the newspaper’s analysis of the city’s own crime data. As for Hayden’s claim that half of all violent crime happens within that rectangle: It’s actually more like one-fifth. In a statement, police now acknowledge the original 67% statistic was in reference to two north-side police districts, not the rectangle that was mapped out for additional policing.

Why is this important? Because Hayden had the right idea to start with — targeting resources where they’re most needed — but to do that with faulty data leads to mis-targeting. It’s no surprise that crime in Hayden’s Rectangle briefly dropped, but did the focus of resources there mean other areas with crime as bad or worse were neglected? Given the apparent misdiagnosis at play here, it’s a fair question.

Instead of the needed course correction, the city so far has offered defensiveness. In a KSDK-TV interview Sunday, Mayor Lyda Krewson accused the Post-Dispatch of being a “Monday-morning quarterback” on this issue, as if the city’s fight against violent crime were already over. It’s not, and as it continues, it’s important that Hayden and other officials are calling the right plays — based on accurate data.

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