Halfway through a 90-day initiative, the Missouri Highway Patrol has confiscated at least 20 illegal guns and made hundreds of arrests for outstanding warrants on Interstates 55 and 70 in St. Louis.
It’s the first time in modern history the patrol has deployed up to 30 troopers on interstate highways within the city of St. Louis for an extended period of time, Capt. John Hotz said. But watching the highways may be one of the few things state and federal government can do to help St. Louis bring down its crime rate, putting the onus primarily on St. Louis’ officers and citizens.
The push is part of Gov. Eric Greitens’ idea to make sure St. Louis officers spend their time in neighborhoods where violent crime happens instead of dealing with traffic violations.
“And as ever, we’re going to adjust and adapt to the situation in order to achieve our mission — which is safer streets for the people of Missouri,” Greitens said last week.
The Highway Patrol also has helped stop the spread of drugs, according to Carl Filler, a senior policy adviser for St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson.
"It's just been a big help. I just don't know necessarily if the help is the moving of officers around. I think it’s just the general protection of life and public safety, reducing drug trafficking activity hopefully, and just maybe just projecting this overall sense of law and order,” he said.
What's not clear is whether the Highway Patrol will extend its presence beyond next month. Greitens’ crime-fighting plan also intended to send state workers to help schoolchildren deal with the psychological effects of violent crime and provided de-escalation training for police officers.
Aside from that, there’s not much else the state can do, GOP state Rep. Kathie Conway, R-St. Charles said. She is the chairwoman of the House committee that funds the Department of Public Safety, under which the Highway Patrol falls.
It would set a bad precedent if the state gave St. Louis more money to stem the violence, because then other cities would want the same.
“We give them $30 million to hire 25 or 30 new officers — and then in a year, they pull them out? It’s not sustainable,” she said. “And it’s a systemic problem. It’s not like ‘oh, gosh. All of a sudden, the gun runners brought all these guns into St. Louis and we’ve got to round them all up and get off them off the streets.’”
Greitens didn’t set aside resources for reducing poverty or developing businesses in St. Louis, two things Jason Watson believes would make a difference in bringing down the crime rate.
According to the St. Louis police, there were 46 total homicides in July and August and 493 aggravated assaults with a gun.
“When you live in an eight-block radius and all you know is violence, you don’t see anything existing outside of that,” said Watson, who works with the nonprofit organization Missouri: St. Louis to train primarily young African-American men for jobs.
“So what we need to be able to do is to provide livable wage opportunities that gives people the opportunity either a) to be able to remove themselves from that environment and b) to be able to be people who can reinvest in those environments that they come in.”
He also thinks that the state should invest in mental health services and mentorship programs to keep young people out of violent situations. “It’s hard for you to value things around you if you feel like those around you don’t care for your life either,” he said.
Federal help is available when it comes to stemming violent crime, especially in communities with high rates of gun violence, like Chicago.
The U.S. Department of Justice arranged for that city to get advice from Los Angeles Police Department officials on crime-fighting strategies, which helped the Chicago Police Department improve its system of cameras that turn on whenever there are gunshots, CPD spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said.
But it’s up to the police department, not the federal government, to develop strategies, he said.
“The most important piece for any police department is community trust and that community validation,” Guglielmi said. “You could put a police car in every driveway in every city. But unless you get people to come out in the community to partner with you, to give you information, to tell you what’s happening and to even serve on juries, you’re only going to get so far.”
St. Louis officials meet with representatives from the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency on a weekly basis, Filler said. And they may get a chance to learn from Chicago: Both cities are a part of the National Public Safety Partnership, which the Department of Justice established this year to come up with strategies to reduce violent crime throughout the country.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum