Crime weighs heavily on minds of St. Louis voters, Democratic candidates for mayor | St. Louis Public Radio

Crime weighs heavily on minds of St. Louis voters, Democratic candidates for mayor

Feb 27, 2017

It’s been a violent couple of years in the city of St. Louis, one measure being the 188 homicides in 2015 and 2016.

A decrease in property crime drove the overall crime number down between 2015 and 2016, but violent crime was up more than four percent in 2016 compared to 2015.

All of the Democratic candidates for mayor know addressing crime will be a top priority if they’re elected. Most of them have very similar plans. Not all of them have faith in current Police Chief Sam Dotson to implement those plans.

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Antonio French in a January 2015 file photo.
Credit File photo | Katelyn Petrin | St. Louis Public Radio

Antonio French

French grew up and lives in the O’Fallon neighborhood, where four people were killed and another 81 were shot and wounded in 2016. He has long been a fierce critic of Dotson and says he’d look nationwide for a new chief on Day One.

"I think Chief Dotson has made it impossible to repair the broken relationship between the police and the community,” French said. “He’s burned so many bridges both with the community and with elected officials, key figures that we need to be partners in rebuilding our city."

Keeping Dotson in the job, French argues, makes it more difficult for the men and women under his command to do their jobs.

"Police can’t be successful if they don’t have that relationship or trust with the community. In St. Louis, most murders go unsolved. The biggest reason for that is police don’t have the relationship with the communities most affected by violence who could help find the perpetrators of the violence."

But French makes it clear that his demand for accountability shouldn’t be seen as lack of support for the city’s officers.

“One of the top requests from my community we get is for more police, more money for police, better pay for police” he said. “At the same time, we want to make sure that when those very few officers who do go beyond the law that they are held accountable.”

Bill Haas speaks at a July 2016 congressional candidate forum.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Bill Haas

To Haas, a member of the elected school board, everything comes back to education.

"Everybody talks about crime, and my line is, ‘If we don’t address the causes of crime, our grandchildren are still going to be asking for 200 more police on their streets,” he said. “The way you address crime is to address education.”

"The focus of the mayor, Haas said, needs to be on bringing education and job training to young black men who have no other options.

"We need to give them alternatives to the life they lead now, and that’s the answer," he said.

Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, D-22nd Ward, at a February 2017 board meeting.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Jeffrey Boyd

Boyd is one of three candidates in the race for whom violent crime is personal. His nephew, Rashad Farmer, was shot and killed in 2015 — the case remains unsolved.

Boyd’s plan starts with more officers.

“But we have to make sure that they're organized in a way that makes them effective and efficient at doing their jobs,” he said. “I want to make sure that every neighborhood has bike patrols and foot patrols. So many people that I represent feel like no one really cares about them. You don’t see the police officers enough. And if we do more community engagement with our police department, people will start to feel safe.”

Boyd is willing to give Dotson a chance.

“I need to have a vision as mayor, and we need to have benchmarks for success,” he said. “And if the chief is not making those benchmarks, then maybe he should seek employment somewhere else. But unless he’s not doing what I need him to do as mayor, it’s not fair to say he’s gone on day one.”

Jimmie Matthews in a January 2017 file photo.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo I St. Louis Public Radio

Jimmie Matthews

Matthews would start tackling crime by requiring the city’s police officers to live in its boundaries.

When you live a community, you have more stake in whether the community is safe for your kids,” he said.

Like many of his opponents, Matthews is frustrated by the uneven level of policing throughout the city.

"Anything that happens in the Central West End, they put all the dogs out to catch the person that committed the crime. But in north St. Louis, there’s no rewards,” he said.

And that’s one of the reasons he, too, would fire Dotson.

“Under his administration you see what’s happening. Why should I put someone in the office that I’m having problems with showing up into my neighborhood,” Matthews said.

Board of Aldermen president Lewis Reed.
Credit File photo | Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

Lewis Reed

Crime is also personal for Lewis Reed: In 1982, when his family lived in Joliet, Illinois, Reed’s brother was shot in the head and killed. That case was also never solved.

Reed agrees that putting more officers on the street, and paying them more, would help bring crime down.

“But to really begin to get in front of the problem, we’re really going to have to invest in our rec centers, we’re going to have to work to have more comprehensive programs and services for our youth, major economic development throughout neighborhoods that have been longer underserved, jobs and job readiness for people within our community, and a host of other things on the front end of it,” he said.

Reed isn’t keen on Dotson’s record, but doesn’t believe he can fire Dotson immediately.

“Anybody going into this, if you say i;’m going to fire him no matter what, I think that’s a problem for the city, and I think we end up in a lawsuit and I think we lose,” Reed said. “But if we look and see and his job performance has been substandard, then of course the city would need a new chief.”

Lyda Krewson in a February 2017 file photo.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Lyda Krewson

"Frankly, I don’t want to hear again crime is down,” said Krewson, the 28th Ward alderman. “I know that if you add up all the crimes, meaning stolen license plate tabs and everything that it may be down, but violent crime is up and that’s really what we have to focus on.”

The 28th Ward alderman’s plan also starts with putting more officers on the street. The fact that the department has said it’s short-staffed by at least 100 officers means those that are on patrol are working a lot of overtime.

“And that is a situation that doesn’t lead you to be able to respond fast, or to respond perhaps with perfect judgment. It also is a situation which causes you maybe not to have the time to do as much training as you would like,” she said.

That training, Krewson said, needs to include implicit bias and sensitivity training.

Though Krewson acknowledges that relationships between the police and residents are strained in many parts of the community, she remains proud of the endorsement from the St. Louis Police Officers Association.

“You have to have the support of police officers if you’re going to be an effective mayor,” she said. “I’m proud to stand with the police officers, and I don’t think it’s a dichotomy to want to stand with police officers and understand the point of view of Black Lives Matter.”

Tishaura Jones in a February 2017 file photo.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo I St. Louis Public Radio

Tishaura Jones

Jones would go after crime by borrowing an idea for Los Angeles: embed social workers into the police department.

“I think we have enough police — I don’t think they’re being deployed effectively,” she said.  “Police handle a whole host of things that they’re not equipped to handle, and I think having social workers helps police as well,” she said.

Jones said she’s heard that police morale is at an all-time low, and she wants to make sure their voices are heard, like she did with the employees of the treasurer's office when she took over in 2012.

When pushed on the question of the impact that short-staffing has on morale, Jones said if officers told her directly that more manpower would help, she would add additional police.

Like French and Matthews, Jones would fire chief Dotson immediately, though she would not specifically explain why.

“I think a lot of the things that … I’ll just say that I think it’s time for new leadership, and everything has to be on the table,” she said.

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