Ten children have been shot to death in St. Louis since Memorial Day weekend — more than the total number of young people killed by guns in all of 2018.
The cause of the increase has vexed police, researchers and those who work with victims of violence.
“Not very often” — that’s how frequently former St. Louis police detective George Seper remembers investigating a homicide case in which a child was the victim. He spent about half of his 31 years with the department as a homicide detective — a span between 1954 and 1985 that included some of the most violent times in the city’s history. Seper and his colleagues routinely investigated more than 200 homicides a year, in a period when a lot more people lived in the city.
The only case involving a child that stands out to him was a 1983 murder that remains unsolved. Those circumstances were much different — the unidentified victim was clearly the target of the violence. Police believe that this year, the vast majority of the children killed were caught in the crossfire of adults, a very different scenario than Seper remembers from back in his day.
“At one time, one told me he was going to shoot a guy, but there was a kid in the way,” he said. “It was kind of an unwritten code by these people that they wouldn’t not only target a kid, they wouldn’t try to harm him in any way.”
Andrew Glass remembers a code, too.
Before Glass, now 50, went to prison in 1987, he was heavily involved in a gang in St. Louis County. Violence was a part of that life, he said, but there were rules.
“No children, no women, parents, stuff like that,” he said. “They weren’t involved in it, they don’t get in it. So if a person was with their child, or with their little brother or little sister, and we wanted to do a shooting, then the shooting didn’t get done because the child was around.”
The motivations behind the code weren’t particularly noble, Glass said. It was all about avoiding “heat” — keeping the police out of your neighborhood. Shooting an innocent bystander meant your gang buddies were likely to start being arrested and questioned.
‘The code of the street’
Yale University sociologist Elijah Anderson coined the phrase “the code of the street” in 1994. For young black men in urban America, he said, it was a way to stay alive.
“The assumption that a lot of young people make is that in their communities, isolated as they tend to be, they’re on their own,” Anderson said. “The wider system, the police, the criminal system, the larger economy has effectively abdicated any responsibility to their communities, so people have to make it on their own. In order to have safety and security in their own communities, some people take the law into their own hands, and so it’s an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. You mess with me, I pay you back.”
Ongoing research supports the idea of a “code of the street” governing when violence could be used, although there’s little examination of whether it also governed when violence could not be used, as Glass recalled being the case.
But when he got out of prison in 2012 and started helping young men become better fathers through his job at Fathers Support Center, Glass realized something had shifted.
“Their code is, 'I’m just going to get the person I’m going to get, and if anyone gets hurt, so be it.' They don’t care,” he said.
Glass has some ideas about what changed during his 25-year stint behind bars. Many of the young men he works with are under so much stress, he said, they get angry at the drop of a hat. And many of them have access to guns — a dangerous combination.
“They say, ‘I have these guns, I have to do this, because if I don’t do it, I’m going to get done,’” he said. “So it’s like a bunch of guys who are fearful, shooting. 'I’m going to shoot before I get shot.'”
Research backs up the theory that fear can lead to violence, said Terrance Taylor, a University of Missouri-St. Louis criminology professor.
“There’s this idea that’s kind of cooked into the street code of hypervigilance, making sure that nobody gets the jump on you,” he said. “But I don’t know how much that has changed over time. And that’s the part I find difficult in terms of using that as an explanation for this recent outbreak.”
‘It’s really terrible’
Taylor is at a loss to provide an explanation for a violent summer.
“I don’t know if it’s just a matter of more innocent people being outside at a given time at a given place, or what the possibility might be, but no, I can’t answer that,” he said. "It’s really terrible.”
The “why” has been on the mind of Keyira Jeffries, too.
Jeffries, a social worker at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, deals with children who are part of the Life Outside Violence program. It provides intensive services to children and young adults between the ages of 8 and 24 who have been victims of any kind of violence, in the hopes of preventing them from becoming victims again.
From talking to her clients, Jeffries believes there used to be a code that protected children, which she thinks has eroded as national street gangs that enforced the code collapsed. But she knows it’s more than that.
“They can say it’s a gun issue, they can say it’s a poverty issue, they can say it’s a social issue, and it’s all of those things,” she said.
For example, the black unemployment rate in Missouri is nearly triple that of the state as a whole. And lawmakers have acted to loosen gun restrictions, despite pleas from lawmakers, elected officials and police in urban areas.
That’s what makes this summer exceptionally frustrating to Patrick Hamacher, a former candidate for St. Louis circuit attorney who now works at the Niemeyer, Grebel and Kruse law firm.
In 2015, Hamacher, then an assistant circuit attorney in the city, prosecuted his first homicide case — a young man for the death of Shaneka Spraggins. The 15-year-old was shot and killed in 2007, an innocent bystander to a gang dispute.
“The thing that stands out to me with the situation that we’re dealing with now is that things really haven't changed in the 12 years since Shaneka was killed,” he said. “What are we doing to address any of the underlying issues of crime? Why is it that in 2019, we are still dealing with 15-year-old African Americans being killed?”
There’s been some movement on the issue. Gov. Mike Parson has promised state troopers and additional funds for victims of crime. And the Board of Aldermen’s public safety committee backed spending nearly $5 million for a nationally recognized anti-violence program.
Whatever bigger issues are driving a violent summer, the deaths of so many children have been painfully personal for Jeffries.
“I know the names, I see the names, I’ve worked with the families,” she said. “I’m in the schools, I’m in the community, and it’s terrifying sometimes to turn on the news.”
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