It was the end of 2017, and St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden was looking at some troubling numbers.
Violent crime in the city had jumped more than 7% from 2016. Homicides had hit a 20-year high — 205. There were more than 2,600 shootings, and nearly 2,000 robberies.
Hayden had been the commander of North Patrol before taking the department’s top job, so he had an idea where to begin. Starting in January 2018, he flooded a seven-square-mile area bordered by Goodfellow, West Florissant, Martin Luther King and Vandeventer with as many as 50 additional officers from special units like Mobile Reserve, SWAT and Traffic Safety.
“At the time, 64% of the violent crime citywide came from that area, and so I knew that it was safe to focus there because I knew that there was a lot of low-hanging fruit with respect to violent crime in that region,” Hayden said. “It was basically a lot more visibility, and a lot more enforcement.”
Research shows that this strategy, known as hotspot policing, is fairly effective at fighting crime in the short term, and that appears to be the case in St. Louis. Between 2017 and 2018, violent crime in the area known as Hayden’s Rectangle dropped 18 percent, according to police.
“At the end of the year, there were 23 less homicides in the Rectangle, there were 77 less robberies, and 113 less aggravated assaults with a firearm,” he said. “We believe that had citywide impact.”
The trend is holding this year, although a recent spate of violence has reversed some of the progress. And while crime dropped in the Rectangle, it was also down citywide.
Hotspot policing is not a new strategy in St. Louis — the technique had been used in half of the 12 neighborhoods in the Rectangle in the past decade. But those were temporary boosts in resources, Hayden said.
“When you kinda mix resources around from week to week or day to day, I don’t think you get the long-lasting impact of focusing on an area or areas that have historic violent crime,” he said.
New this time as well was assistance from federal authorities, Hayden said. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Missouri, led by Jeff Jensen, handled cases that had a federal connection, usually business robberies and firearms. All together, federal prosecutors filed more than 500 charges.
“The federal system moves quicker, the punishment is more certain, and the recidivism rate is better,” Jensen said.
‘Human capital crisis’
James Clark takes a slightly different view of what’s needed to truly reduce crime.
“Expecting a police chief or an elected official to be able to remedy this human capital crisis is like walking into a McDonald’s and saying, ‘Let me get a pizza,’” said Clark, vice president of outreach at Better Family Life, which has been working in the Rectangle for decades.
Clark has always focused on meeting people in their neighborhoods, front porches and living rooms. The churches — what he calls the “last institutions standing” — are critical to the outreach. He has pushed them to host job fairs and weekly barbecues, trying to build up a sense of community and get people connected to resources.
Damon Cannon, pastor at Ephesus Missionary Baptist Church in the Walnut Park East neighborhood, was one of 90 pastors to answer Clark’s call. Six people were killed in that neighborhood last year, and another 57 shot. That’s an improvement from 2017, although the numbers for 2019 don’t look as good.
“We bring light,” he said of his 86-year-old church. “And where we’re bringing light, darkness flees. If people like each other, they tend to not fight. They tend to not kill each other.”
But just as crime reduction requires more than just policing, it also requires more than neighbors looking out for each other. That’s why Hayden turned to outside partners like the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis.
The 101-year-old organization has Head Start programs in the Rectangle, but few offerings for young men, who are overwhelmingly the victims and perpetrators of violent crime. Based on data it got from the police department, the Urban League opened the north St. Louis Empowerment Center.
“Because of the research that went into Chief Hayden’s zone, we are able to be more intentional in our work,” said Tydrell Stevens, who coordinates the job-training program known as Save Our Sons. “We can look at a map, and we can see a 36% unemployment rate, and we can go in and promote, and recruit, and get guys in.”
The program teaches skills like interviewing and knowing how to pick the right job, Stevens said. Since the beginning of the year, 127 graduates have gotten jobs. If they all keep those jobs for a year, Stevens said, they’ll pump $3 million into some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.
“At our last graduation, we had a guy who had never even filled out an application before,” Stevens said. “He used the terminology pulling licks in terms of robberies, and how he thought about it [robberies] before, but having a job and really being focused on it has really changed his whole mindset.”
Stevens lives inside the Rectangle. He’s lost friends to the violence Hayden is trying to stop, and knows police have a role in that effort.
“But we also need fair treatment for individuals, because it’s going to be hard if individuals are getting treated unfairly to come to the table and really respect the other side,” he said.
Pastor Cannon agrees.
“We have to go back and rebuild those fences and say, 'Hey, we’re in here together; we’re here to help you, not to hurt you or to punish you.' I think in the long run, we’ll see more good feelings about that. I don’t know that we’ve gotten there yet,” he said.
Hayden acknowledged a wedge exists but says the neighborhoods welcome the police visibility and promised the department will continue its own outreach efforts.
“We helped rehab some houses over in the Greater Ville,” he said. “So it might be four elderly veterans that were helped, but it might have been 60 or 70 people out there listening, and watching us work with their family members knowing that we are very concerned about a closer relationship with the community. So I think overall, it’s going in the right direction.”
And new research finds the negative impacts of hotspot policing may be overstated.
Studies of a hotspot in St. Louis County — one published in 2017, another in 2018 — found that satisfaction with police improved in areas that had seen hotspot policing, compared to areas that received just standard patrols. And importantly for crime reduction — so did a community’s willingness to look out for each other.
“Citizens see the police doing something and say, 'Maybe I should as well,'” said David Weisburd, a criminology professor at George Mason University and one of the authors of the studies.
But Weisburd sounds a cautionary note. Hotspots are generally very small — a specific street, or even a specific block. The rectangle covers several square miles.
“Most of the streets in that neighborhood probably don’t have many problems. You’re now targeting many streets, and perhaps many people, that you shouldn’t be targeting,” he said.
A large hotspot, he says, may not have the same positive results on police-community relations as a smaller one.
Based on the crime numbers, however, Hayden has expanded his rectangle strategy. Hotspots in south St. Louis and around downtown started this January.
Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann
Brent Jones contributed data analysis to this story.
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