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Commentary: Murder by the numbers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 9, 2010 - CQ Press has recently recognized St. Louis as the most dangerous city in the United States. Citing crime statistics from 2009, the CQ study found the incidence of violent crime in the city to be 2,070.1 per 100,000 residents. That number compares rather unfavorably to the national average of 429.4.

The local violent crime rate is thus almost 5 times that of the country as a whole. Although perennially among the leaders in CQ's mayhem index, St. Louis hadn't attained the #1 ranking since 2004.

Civic leaders are quick to decry findings like these. They complain that the stats are misleading because they do not include the surrounding suburban community, making the metropolitan area appear far more dangerous than it actually is.

There's truth in that assertion, but the city -- like it or not -- is a distinct geo-political entity with its own police force and its own circuit court. We could improve its crime rate by including the suburbs in the analysis; we could also improve it by annexing, say, Ames, Iowa. But neither remedy would do much to accurately reflect the reality of living right here, right now.

Another objection is that various jurisdictions can categorize the same action differently. One state, for instance, might classify a strong-arming as Second-Degree Robbery (a violent crime) while another might record it as Stealing from a Person (a nonviolent crime). That's a valid objection, and the difficulty of imprecise categorization is common to all statistical studies.

To control for the latter problem, I decided to limit the present discussion to the crime of murder because it's tabulated uniformly everywhere: The guy lying in the gutter with a bullet in his head counts as "1."

The Census Bureau places the 2009 population of Missouri at 5,987,580. According to the Uniform Crime Report, 383 murders took place in the state last year, meaning that there was 1 murder for every 15,633 residents.

The population of the City of St. Louis was recorded as 356,987 for the same period. 143 of the state's murders took place within city limits -- 1 murder for every 2,496 citizens or, about 6.3 times the rate for the state as a whole.

Looked at another way, a city that comprises slightly less than 6 percent of the state's population accounted for just over 37 percent of its homicides. If you subtract the St. Louis population and murder numbers from the state's totals, you wind up with 240 murders for the remaining 5,630,593 Missourians. The murder rate subsequently improves to 1 murder for every 23,460 residents. The homicide rate in St. Louis, then, is more than 9 times that of the rest of the state -- and "the rest of the state" includes Missouri's other large urban concentration in Kansas City.

Kansas City had a population of 482,299 and experienced 109 murders in 2009. That works out to a rate of 1 murder for every 4,425 residents. The St. Louis homicide rate is thus nearly twice that of her sister city.

Remove both cities from the state's totals and the place becomes a virtual Disneyland with 131 murders for a population of 4,791,307 -- 1 homicide for every 36,575 citizens. That means that the St. Louis murder rate is approximately 14.7 times higher than the rate of suburban and rural Missouri combined. And remember that the murder rate does not include justifiable homicides, like people shot by the police while committing other crimes.

My purpose in citing these numbers is to alarm. Political bromides about misleading statistics, improving property crime rates and the preponderance of stable neighborhoods notwithstanding, any reasonably objective analysis would indicate that we have a serious problem on our hands.

MADD has galvanized public opinion about the very legitimate perils of drunken driving. Yet, the St. Louis figures show murder to be a far greater danger to public health locally. Through the first 11 months of this year, 35 people were killed in vehicular accidents in the city. During the same period, 130 people were murdered.

The statistics don't tell us how many impaired drivers were involved in the traffic fatalities. If an intoxicated driver dies in a wreck, he or she is obviously not charged. There is also no way of knowing if a motorist who strikes a pedestrian and leaves the scene had been drinking. What is clear is that for every 1 city traffic fatality, there are more than 3.7 city murders. Even if every driver in every wreck were blind drunk, gunfire would still account for nearly 4 times as many deaths within city limits as impaired driving.

But sometimes you have to put numbers into a tangible context to tell the whole story. Last week, a young man who had been murdered in north St. Louis was laid out at a funeral home in the 3900 block of Washington Ave. During the course of the funeral services, an argument broke out and 4 more people were shot. 2 died on the scene, 1 other later perished from his wounds. 1 of the dead had been confined to a wheelchair as a result of injuries he sustained in a 2009 drive-by shooting.

Is it just me, or does anyone else think it's time to press the panic button?

The police originally theorized that the funeral home shootings were retaliation for the original murder. Further investigation revealed them to be totally unrelated. The cops, in effect, had tried to impose a rational explanation onto what was, in fact, merely the absurd consequence of rampant lawlessness.

The politically correct remedy to this madness addresses the "root causes" of crime and usually devolves into rumination over the deficiencies of the public schools system. All that may be true, but it takes a kid 13 years to progress from grades K through 12 and that's a long time in a gunfight.

Perhaps we would be better served by considering the root cause of most of our murders to be a criminal with a gun. Apparently, Police Chief Dan Isom agrees with that straightforward analysis because he's just announced that he will deploy a special strike force into targeted areas to try to rid the streets of these predators.

Soon, the same news outlets that brought you vivid coverage of the fore-cited carnage will breathlessly report complaints of "community activists" about alleged civil rights violations by an overly aggressive police force.

Before rushing to judgment, reflect upon the numbers we've just discussed to see if these charges really add up.

"If you can keep your head while all those around you are losing theirs, then perhaps you have misunderstood the situation."

--D.K. Moran

M.W.Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.

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