The subject was murder | St. Louis Public Radio

The subject was murder

Sep 25, 2010

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 25, 2010 - Candles have an especially unpleasant meaning for Jeanette Culpepper. She recalls a recent conversation with a donor.

"He said to me, 'I'm tired of buying candles'," she remembered. "'I know you are. I'm tired of lighting them.'"

But light them she does - and has at vigil after vigil during the nearly two decades since her 22-year-old son was shot to death.

"One day, we will see a difference," she added. "When you ask God for something and you pray, in time He will do it."

Culpepper, founder of Families Advocating Safe Streets, was among the participants in a homicide panel Friday morning at the downtown United Way office that brought community leaders, advocates and law enforcement together to speak about the challenges of facing the problem of violence on St. Louis-area streets. The eight-member panel discussion was a prelude to a luminary vigil set for Saturday in honor of the National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims. The event is sponsored by the Crime Victim Advocacy Center in conjunction with a number of partnering groups. At 6:45 p.m., 270 luminaries will be lit at Soldiers' Memorial Museum downtown to honor the area's casualties of violence.

Panelist James Buford, president and chief executive of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, said that while such events are helpful, they were comparable to funerals - happenings designed more for the living than for the dead.

"One of the most frustrating things to me is that every time something happens we have a candlelight vigil or we march and then it goes away," he said. "What we want to see is a sustained attack where we all sit down when there is not this heightened anxiety and take a consistent approach."

The desire to better coordinate was the impetus behind the league founding the Public Safety Advisory Council, a group designed to foster good relations between law enforcement and community organizations. Since its inception late last year, the council, which meets bimonthly, has worked on a variety of projects including a series of anti-violence summits at nine area high schools. Buford said it's important to partner with other agencies to reach the next generation noting that homicide is the second-leading cause of death among those aged 10-24.

"None of us has all the answers but if we pool our resources, it's certainly a better approach to tackling this situation," he said.

Fred Turner said one key is building trust with families to solve crimes when they occur.

Turner, a retired police lieutenant, now works with Homicide, Ministers, & Community Alliance, a nonprofit that works with families and assists local law enforcement. He said when authorities get word of a violent death, his organization receives a fact sheet and is immediately put in touch with the family. The group can help the family to grieve while trying to allay mistrust of police and fear of retaliation, two major obstacles in solving homicide cases. That means one-on-one involvement, from taking 3 a.m. phone calls to showing up for memorial services.

"When they see someone at the funeral, they feel, 'Hey, these guys are really for real,'" he said. "That opens them up to where they want to talk about the murder. The family is going to know more about that murder than the police or anybody else."

Fear of retaliation is one problem, said Turner, but a lack of quick action can lead to a worse situation - further violence. He estimates that up to three-quarters of city killings are retaliatory.

"Grief can lead to many different things," he said. "If it leads to anger, it can lead to retaliation."

Julie Lawson, executive director of the CVAC, said the scope of the problem is obvious to her every time she arrives at work.

"Monday mornings are really interesting in our office," she said. "We can't schedule any meetings because we know we're going to have homicides from over the weekend. That's not where I want to be. I don't want to be able to predict that our Monday mornings are going to be spent listening to families whose lives have been completely destroyed."

The tragedy is that violence is so unnecessary, Lawson said.

"This is not a disease," she said. "This is not a natural disaster or a car accident. This is people choosing to do this. Every day when we go to work, we know we're facing an epidemic that is completely preventable."

Ken Lawson of the Missouri Department of Corrections Board of Probation and Parole said his panel was a part of the process of prevention. The department is always looking for best practices from across the nation to reduce recidivism, he said and highlighted the work of Pathways to Change, a program that tries to alter criminal thought processes so parolees do not fall back into destructive habits.

One method is for those just released to be exposed to crime victim education classes where they can see the effects violence has on survivors.

"It helps to open the eyes of those involved in criminal activities, to make it real," he said. "They see how their actions impact a family."

James Clark said that homicide presented an interesting dynamic locally.

"St. Louis is not like Detroit, Chicago or New York, where you have large parcels and neighborhoods that are crime-ridden," he said. "Our crime takes place in very small, manageable pockets. We know where they are."

And that means they can be targeted effectively. Clark said his organization, Better Family Life Inc., had partnered with the city three years ago to pioneer a "Neighborhood Alliance" model in high-crime areas offering everything from job training to educational opportunities.

"We have the data to support that the model works," he said. "Crime is down in the two neighborhoods into which we do direct outreach. Homicides are down."

Homicides are down generally in the city as well. According to statistics provided after the meeting by participant Capt. Michael Sack of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police, murders in the Gateway City have dropped to 143 last year from their 2008 peak of 167. So far this year, they total 90, six behind last year's pace. On average, about two-thirds of cases are resolved, he said.

Fellow panelist Lt. Tom Larkin of the St. Louis County Police, Crimes Against Persons Division said after the meeting that murder figures were fairly steady over time with 20 homicides having been recorded in his jurisdiction this year but he noted that three were 2007 murders that were investigated this year after being ruled to have been committed in the county.

The number includes only those crimes committed within areas where county police provide protection. Many municipalities either provide their own homicide investigations or contact the Major Case Squad.

Larkin told the group homicide was no short-term issue.

"We don't consider this a sprint race," he said. "This is a marathon; we are all in for the long haul."

Sack told his audience that proper training of detectives and officers was important, both in healing families and solving crimes.

"A detective's primary duty is to a complete a thorough investigation of that crime, but I think we are doing a better job now of interacting with the family members and understanding the grief they are going through while trying to address what they are experiencing," Sack said.

That struck a chord with at least one audience member. Interviewed afterward, Mata Weber, Missouri/Illinois chapter leader of Parents of Murdered Children, agreed that instruction in sensitivity for those dealing with families was a must.

"They need more training in talking to victims," said Weber, an Illinoisan who said her 21-year-old daughter was beaten with a tire iron, strangled and drowned after being abducted from her place of employment in 1982. "Many, many people come into the group and say [the police won't] talk to me or they're sarcastic or they're rude to me."

She said she felt satisfied with the discussion after attending Friday's panel. She just hoped those who interact with survivors will remember their circumstances.

"I just need them to be more involved with the victim," she said. "The victim is the person who needs somebody to talk to."