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St. Louis gangs and New York crime-fighting among topics at Urban Crime Summit

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Although billed as a “Urban Crime Summit,’’ one of the key crime statistics offered by the four-day event’s host, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, affected rural Missouri as well.

Missouri’s per-capita crime rate is the 9th highest in the nation, Koster said in his opening address at Wednesday’s session, the third day of the Summit – and the first of two days in St. Louis.

His point? Crime in Missouri “isn’t just an inner-city problem” facing its largest urban areas: Kansas City and St. Louis.

Still, the attorney general – a Democrat running for governor in 2016 – said there’s no question that St. Louis and Kansas City are grappling with entrenched and persistent crime problems, despite recent drops in murders.

And he suggested that both urban areas, and the state, look east as they consider solutions.

Kansas City’s murder rate is 22 per 100,000 people, while St. Louis’ is 35 per 100,000. By contrast, the city of New York’s murder rate is now 4 per 100,000, down from 14 per 100,000 in 1990.

New York’s success helps explain why the Summit brought in several experts from New York, including William J. Bratton, a former commissioner of the New York Police Department and former police chief of Los Angeles.

Some of the Big Apple’s tactics have come under fire, such as the “stop and frisk’’ approach condemned by groups concerned about civil liberties.

Bratton  defended that practice, but emphasized that individual rights must be protected. "The great debate going on around the country is the balance,” he said in his remarks, as he acknowledged that there have some cases where police has overused or abused the practice.

The message from Koster, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and others on Wednesday was that a get-tough approach early on – along with more education and job opportunities – can deter some youths from getting swept up in crime.

That’s one reason Koster joined Slay is calling for “gun courts” that would deal solely with gun-related crimes and likely impose swifter punishments.

Police warn of "mission creep"

Slay acknowledged that other factors contribute to crime – notably, the lack of adult guidance when young people need it the most.

Said Slay in his remarks: “Too many young males don’t have anyone to teach them how to be a man.”

For all the concern, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley said officials and the public shouldn’t ignore some of the region’s good news over the past decade. “Crime is at an all-time low in St. Louis County,” Dooley said.

St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson and the mayor both emphasized that the number of murders in the city has gone down more than 40 percent in the past six years.

But St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch said public perceptions can be hard to change – especially when some less-violent crimes, such as vehicle break-ins, are “experiencing a big spike around the area.”

Fitch, like Slay, also alluded to societal ills that the police chief said can prompt “mission creep,” in which police are expected to not only fight crime, but address the social problems that contribute to it.

“We can’t do everything. We’re the police,” Fitch said.

Fitch’s point was that police can only do so much. He pointed to the recent shooting of an 8-year-old in Pine Lawn by a relative who, the chief observed, explained later that “he was angry” and felt like shooting at children.

Fitch tied such behavior to mental illness and “a profound sense of hopeless, and that leads to a lot of violent crime.”

Tackling such factors, said Fitch, is the job of the community – not just the police.

Dooley said the public needs to recognize “we cannot put enough police on the street to stop crime.”

Gang violence small, but knows no boundaries

Summit attendees were particularly riveted by St. Louis Detective Jerod Breit’s report on the region’s gang element – so much so that Koster revamped the program on the spot to allow for questions and answers related to Breit’s presentation.

According to Breit, city police have documented at least 8,671 gang members – almost half of them just since 2008. Of that number, close to 1,200 are in prison, and close to 1,000 are on federal or state parole or probation. Another 257 are dead.

But 1,285 of those identified gang members haven’t been involved in crimes in 10 years, Breit.

And during the 18-month period ending in June, the percentage of various crimes linked to identified gang members was generally less than 10 percent – and in many categories, a lot less – underscoring Breit’s point that gang violence isn’t the main driver of urban crime.

Gang activity also has shifted from the streets to the internet. Graffiti on buildings has become less of a problem, Breit said, because gang youth are increasingly doing their “painting” online. In fact, many gang members are spending more time communicating online than on the streets, he said.

Another change: Locally, more gangs are mixed race, which the detective attributed, in part, to the shift in gang focus to “business” operations, such as drug dealing.

City police used to have a problem with city gang members running into the county, outside their jurisdiction, and using county communities as “safe havens” to avoid arrest. That’s changing, said Breit, because of increased cooperation between city and county police.

Dooley said that joint cooperation makes sense: “Crime and criminals don’t have boundaries; criminals don’t know or care that Skinker Avenue is the boundary between St. Louis City and County. It just makes sense to have joint solutions.”

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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