St. Louis is not alone in confronting an increase in violent crime, but what little comfort that may provide city officials is tempered by the fact that there are relatively few resources readily available to help cities across the U.S. confront their own rise in gun and drug related violence.
Mayors from 20 cities along with chiefs of police, an array of federal law enforcement officials, and academics met in Washington on Wednesday for a Department of Justice sponsored summit on violent crime. St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and Police Chief Samuel Dotson, both attended the day-long session to share ideas, concerns and to make appeals to federal officials for assistance.
Slay says that while there were no commitments for additional resources, the summit itself was important.
“This really shows that the issues that we’re facing in St. Louis are issues that are facing the entire country and we’ve got the attention of the federal government in a big way, that’ very, very helpful," Slay said.
Slay said just as there’s no single cause for the recent increase in violent crime, there’s no single solution. Both Slay and Dotson are quick to identify the availability of guns, combined with a lack of significant consequences for those charged with gun crimes in state courts as a contributing factor in the increase.
Dotson said officials from across the U.S. are facing similar problems in trying to stop gun crimes.
“Nobody is seeing the outcomes in state court for gun crimes so, there was a plea to the federal government to get more prosecutions in the federal courts,” Dotson said.
Slay agrees and says federal prosecutors can pursue harsher consequences than prosecutors can in under state laws.
“The federal authorities, first of all, will be much stricter. They’ll have stricter penalties, they’ll have stricter sentences, they’ll be able to take some cases that we just frankly can’t take because of our lax state gun laws,” Slay said.
The Ferguson Effect
Ron Davis, Director of the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services office (COPS), was asked about whether the intense public attention focused on police nationally in the aftermath of Ferguson was having a chilling effect on officers and might be contributing to an increase in crime.
“Obviously… law enforcement feels extremely scrutinized,” Davis said. “And I think that what a lot of the mayors and police chief’s thought was that that may cause a natural apprehension for officers to rethink how they’re policing, which is not necessarily a bad thing.”
But that may not be how Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel sees it. While the Justice Department told reporters that the summit was a closed meeting, a reporter from the Washington Post reportedly entered the room with the Mayor of Washington D.C. The newspaper is reporting that Emanuel urged U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to take a strong stand for police as the nation’s top cop.
“There’s no doubt Ferguson, Baltimore, New York, Cleveland, in my view, have put the genie out of the bottle” the newspaper quoted Emanuel as saying, as he referenced cities where civic unrest was prompted by police-involved fatalities. “Unless we deal with backing them up, the gang members know” police “are not putting their hands on them because they don’t want to be prosecuted, whether it be by public opinion or by the court,” Emanuel said, according to the newspaper.
An Effective Strategy
University of Missouri-St. Louis Professor Richard Rosenfeld also attended the summit. He said officials from Chicago talked about a program where police officers visit the homes of known “active offenders” in their community.
"These are people with extensive arrest histories who are not currently in jail or prison,” Rosenfeld said.
He said that even if the offender isn’t there or won’t talk to police, a mother, brother or sister likely will. He says police have two messages. The first, he says, is “you’re on our radar and we’re trying to prevent the next crime and you could be the next perpetrator and we’re going to prevent that.” He says the second message is “you also have the highest probability of anybody in this neighborhood of being the next victim, and we want to prevent that too.” He says, officers then provide information on services that can help that families “get out” from their situation as potential crime victims.
Rosenfeld says the concept of “hot-people” is that within troubled neighborhoods are individuals who are “disproportionately” responsible for crime in the area. He says continuous visits both serve the community and protect potential crime victims if they want help to break free of their situation.
No Quick fixes
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch told those attending the summit in comments open to the media that the issues of rising crime are “multifaceted” and “must involve more than one kind of response,” she said.
“Criminal justice professionals have an important role to play - but even as we focus on what law enforcement can do, we also need to discuss how we can alleviate some of the problems that stifle opportunity and lead to violence in the first place - poverty, to substandard schools, to homelessness, to inadequate mental health services.”
Lynch expressed confidence in the combined efforts of those in attendance. “I know that progress will not be immediate and certainly won’t be easy. But I am confident that we are identifying effective ways to improve public safety - and putting them to good use.”