2020 was a bad year for killings in St. Louis.
The city nearly broke a 30-year-old record for the number of homicides in a year. It had the highest homicide rate among the nation’s large cities. And as killings have increased from 2018 through 2020, the percentage of homicide cases closed by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department has declined. In 2020, detectives solved only a third of the city’s homicides.
With a growing number of killings going unsolved, the police department has shielded critical information from the public.
For months, St. Louis Public Radio and APM Reports, an investigative team with American Public Media, sought data from the department to better understand how often St. Louis police solve homicides. Under Missouri’s public records law, the requests covered information about each case, including victim name, age, race, location of the crime and whether an arrest was made.
The police department released some data but has repeatedly refused to provide a critical piece of information that would help the public understand how well detectives do their jobs: whether the police solved the case.
As a result, APM Reports has filed a lawsuit against the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department for violating Missouri’s open records law. The legal move comes four years after the city released the same data to The Washington Post.
The lawsuit was filed Sunday in St. Louis Circuit Court by Minnesota Public Radio, the parent company of APM Reports. The case is just one example of how the department holds back information from the public.
The relatives of homicide victims say detectives don’t provide routine updates about investigations. They say detectives often don’t return calls — a basic step that helps solve cases, criminologists say.
At the same time, some of the city’s elected officials complain that the police department is unaccountable and unresponsive.
Community leaders, politicians and other public safety experts say the department’s transparency lessened after several high-profile police incidents in St. Louis and across the nation. They include the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer; the 2017 acquittal of former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley of first-degree murder in the shooting of a Black man, and the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Rachel Smith, a former prosecutor in the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office, said the police department’s lack of transparency came in response to greater public scrutiny.
“When you’re worried about your reputation in the community, and you don’t know where to turn, one of the easiest things to do is guard closely things that can be manipulated and used against you,” said Smith, who prosecuted hundreds of homicide cases during her 27-year tenure with the circuit attorney’s office before leaving last year to start her own firm.
Smith and others say the secrecy has increased distrust of the department among communities of color.
Criminologists say the department’s refusal to share information will harm its efforts to solve crimes, because witnesses will be reluctant to share valuable information with a force that isn’t transparent and accountable.
“Transparency increases community support,” said David Carter, a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. “You have to make the time to say, ‘Look, we’re not going to get out of this until we can really start establishing this community trust again.’”
Department limits information it used to release
Earlier this year, St. Louis Public Radio and APM Reports began investigating why St. Louis has such low homicide clearance rates. The news outlets asked the police department for basic information about each case. The department provided a list of information including the names of those killed, their ages and race, the location of the homicide and the murder weapon. But the department refused to specify which cases police considered cleared.
Erika Zaza, an attorney for the police department, said clearance status is part of an investigative report. Under the Missouri Sunshine Law, records about a specific investigation are private until an arrest is made or a case is considered inactive. The database that lists whether a case was cleared may not reflect the current status of each case, she said.
“The clearance status is a fluid field [that] changes during the investigation and is part of the investigative report,” Zaza wrote in an email explaining the city’s decision.
But information about whether a case is considered solved is an “administrative notation” that has nothing to do with specifics of an investigation, said Lisa Hoppenjans, the director of Washington University Law School’s First Amendment Clinic, which is representing APM Reports in the lawsuit.
The department could provide this information, Hoppenjans said. The refusal to release it “should raise some suspicions or questions about exactly what the information might show that they don’t want to share it,” she said.
The department is using an overly broad interpretation of the Sunshine Law at a time when St. Louis police are being heavily criticized for the city’s violent crime rate, Hoppenjans said.
There were 264 homicides in St. Louis in 2020, according to the department’s annual report. That’s the highest number since 1993, when the city set a record with 267 homicides.
The department’s decision to keep homicide clearance data private is a reversal from past practice. In 2017, the department provided the information to The Washington Post, then updated the dataset a year later, according to emails between the department and the newspaper. Steven Rich, the database editor for the Post, characterized the city’s records denial as “ludicrous.”
“It’s the basic information about the case,” he said. “Is [a case] still open or not? That’s a question that they should be able to answer and is not exempted by any open records law in any state that I can think of.”
After the police department refused the first request in February, APM Reports and St. Louis Public Radio crafted multiple requests nearly identical to that of the Post. The department denied them all.
Zaza said she couldn’t say why the city gave the data to the Post, “given the length of time that has transpired,” but said the manner in which open records are reviewed and processed has changed since the Post made its request.
The department also changed how it reports the aggregate number of homicide clearances after St. Louis Public Radio and APM Reports started asking about the issue. The department had previously separated cases cleared in 2021 from those solved in earlier years. After St. Louis Public Radio and APM Reports began working on this story, the department started reporting the total number of homicides cleared in 2021 without specifying if the solved cases involved a homicide that occurred in 2021 or in earlier years.
That inflates the clearance rate for homicides that occurred in 2021. On Nov. 17, the department reported that there were 171 homicides in the city in 2021. It also reported clearing 101 cases — a rate of 59%. But that clearance rate is deceptive, because the department acknowledges that 27 of the 101 cases solved in 2021 are from homicides that occurred in earlier years.
Interim Public Safety Director Dan Isom said the reporting reflects the FBI’s definition of clearance rate. Since the city is refusing to release the underlying data, the public may never get a full understanding of which homicides remain unsolved in the city.
Families want communication
The families of some homicide victims say the St. Louis police department won’t provide them with information either.
Erica Jones says she calls detectives every month for answers about the 2015 slaying of her 24-year-old daughter, Whitney Brown. Brown was killed in a drive-by shooting in front of her 5-year-old-son. Police have not made an arrest in the case.
Since her daughter’s death, Jones says detectives on the case haven’t been calling her back. The excuses, she says, include vacations, sick family members and working in the field. “Just excuse after excuse after excuse after excuse,” she said.
APM Reports and St. Louis Public Radio found many other families frustrated by the department’s lack of responsiveness. Some have contacted Chief John Hayden or other city leaders directly after failing to reach the detectives assigned to their cases, according to interviews and a review of email messages obtained through open records requests.
Other family members say the department is reluctant to use the information they provide.
The day after 26-year-old Mario Fox was shot and killed in 2018, his mother, Monthane Miller-Jones, told detectives she believed her son’s friends were responsible.
Based on the information Miller-Jones provided, detectives questioned two men, who were later released without charges. A third remained at large. Over the next three years, Jones regularly called and emailed detectives, telling them everything she could in an effort to find the third suspect. There have still been no arrests.
“I don’t think they’re doing enough,” Miller-Jones said. “I don’t think they care. I’ve given [detectives] over 20 witnesses that could corroborate that Mario was with these people after midnight, 1 o’clock, 1:30 in the morning. And still, after all of that, and the phone records, it’s like, it’s not enough.”
St. Louis Public Radio and APM Reports wanted to know how the department responded to Miller-Jones’ emailed tips. In response to an open records request, the city provided two pages of black ink. The department redacted the entire exchange, calling it part of an active investigation and therefore not subject to the Missouri Sunshine Law.
When asked about the lack of communication between homicide detectives and families, the department released a statement saying that detectives are expected to respond to family members in a timely manner.
Chief Hayden declined interview requests for this story. His supervisor, interim Public Safety Director Isom, said the department is working to change its approach to community relations by sending victim advocates to violent crime scenes.
“It really demonstrates to the victim and the citizen that we are more than just concerned about closing the case,” he said. “We’re concerned about you as an individual and how this has impacted you.”
But police have more work to do to earn the community’s trust, said John Collins-Muhammad, the alderman for the city’s 21st Ward. He said the majority of his constituents in the high-crime neighborhoods in north-central St. Louis don’t trust the police partly because 911 and other calls to police are put on hold or disregarded. He said he has to appeal to Hayden for answers.
“I don’t call my captain. I don’t call my major. I call the chief of police because I want the actual facts,” he said.
The distrust between the community and the police department heightened after the Ferguson protests, Collins-Muhammad said.
Two other aldermen complained that police leaders have refused to answer specific questions about the budget and department management.
“I often question whether the police department was fully transparent in information that they gave,” said Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, who represents the 22nd Ward.
Boyd said officials have dodged questions on a range of issues, such as the number of police districts and the size of the department’s command staff.
The department’s public information office said in a statement that Isom, Hayden and other public safety officials are made available to give updates to committees, even when aldermen don’t directly invite them to appear.
For Boyd, the management of the department is more than just a political responsibility. It’s personal. Police are still searching for whoever killed his nephew in 2015. When his family can’t get answers about the investigation from detectives, Boyd is forced to step in.
“It’s not like the detectives are just trying not to call back,” he said. “But just imagine if we had 200 homicides that year. How many family members are calling to try to get an update on what’s going on? And it’s just really frustrating and heartbreaking.”
Read the full lawsuit:
This story was produced in collaboration with St. Louis Public Radio as part of APM Reports’ public media accountability initiative, which supports investigative reporting at local media outlets around the country. Support also came from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.