This week’s shooting of a police officer in the Central West End underscores the fact that crime continues to be a big problem in the area.
As of July 14, St. Louis City’s homicide rate is on pace to exceed the number of homicides in 2014.
Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and consultant for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, said that crime in the city is up 14 percent year-over-year and homicides are up 60 percent.
“[The numbers] are telling me that we have a serious problem in the city,” Rosenfeld said. “These increases come on the heels of a long-term crime decline. Although we don’t know how wide-spread increases are across the country, what little information we have suggests that crime is going up in a number of other cities. St. Louis is not alone.”
According to St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson, 95 percent of homicides involve the use of a firearm. “We can’t talk about violence that’s happening in the city, unless we talk about the availability of guns and the prosecution of criminals that are caught with guns,” he said.
On Monday, Dotson plans to make a formal announcement about a new task force consisting of the FBI, DEA, ATF, St. Louis City and County to focus on local issues. With the help of prosecutors, the goal of the collaboration is to analyze cases in order to determine appropriate prosecutions. Along with prosecuting cases, the effort will also focus on hotspot policing, identifying repeat offenders, and providing social service workers.
Why has firearm use increased?
The number of guns stolen in 2014 spiked nearly 70 percent compared to 2013, Dotson said, most of which derived from car break-ins. There is no mandatory reporting for stolen guns.
“People will go to a baseball came or concert downtown and can’t take their weapon in with them,” Dotson said. “But, they think it’s a good idea to bring it and leave it locked in their cars. Criminals know that and they will break into [multiple] cars looking for that firearm. They find one and that gun immediately goes into the underground and into the hands of criminals.”
Dotson and Rosenfeld also cited the recent Missouri Supreme Court decision to uphold Amendment 5 as a reason why the use of firearms has increased.
“In Amendment 5, our old ‘felon in possession’ prohibition of legally possessing a firearm has been undermined,” Rosenfeld said. “Amendment 5 in its plain language says in order to be prohibited from carrying a firearm the felon must have been ‘a violent felon.’ I think Amendment 5 in that interpretation is absolutely wrong-headed, and I would not be surprised if that contributed somewhat to the uptick in violence in the city.”
The role of courts
In addition to Amendment 5, Dotson criticized light sentences handed out to individuals found guilty of unlawful use of a weapon, citing a 70 percent recidivism rate. To address the issue, Dotson proposed a new website that would rank judges by how often they give probation for gun charges.
“It’s my job to address crime, and I would think that the courts would be interested in the feedback and not want to live in anonymity behind the bench,” Dotson said. “Anything that makes it easier for criminals to have guns and more difficult to prosecute them are risk factors for us.”
Dotson explained that officials must consider a number of solutions in order to combat crime, including addressing systematic causes.
“There are a lot of systemic factors that live in the background, [such as] education, jobs, substance abuse, the availability of guns, the availability of drugs,” Dotson explained. “So we continue to do our strategies, focusing resources into hotspots and focusing on the individuals we know are responsible for the crimes.”
Last October, Dotson and Mayor Slay proposed an effort to add 160 new police officers over the next two years, but the plan is currently stalled with the Board of Aldermen.
St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.