Murder is on the rise in St. Louis
Across from the Little Explorers Learning Center, diagonal to a crumbling house where heroin dealers and hangers-on often mill about, a garland of teddy bears adorns a telephone pole, a memorial to the latest victim to fall here at one of this city’s deadliest corners.
The victim was a 27-year-old man shot dead on Dec. 23, one of the last casualties in a year of surging gun violence.
“It’s nothing to get a firearm,” said Michael Shelton, who was badly wounded by gunfire eight years ago at this same corner, in the bleak Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood of north St. Louis, and is now determined to stay out of trouble. “I don’t know anybody who doesn’t carry or have easy access to one.”
Murder rates have fallen sharply in most of the country. But St. Louis is one of a few major cities, including Memphis and Washington, where the number of homicides jumped last year. It is also one of several cities, including Baltimore, Detroit, Gary, Ind., and New Orleans, where violent crime, concentrated in low-income minority neighborhoods, has remained stubbornly high, though down from the crack-driven peaks of the early 1990s.
So why is it happening?
Why St. Louis suffered a major setback in a year in which many cities saw further progress is hotly debated. By all accounts, the proliferation of guns among young men here is beyond control, turning petty insults, neighborhood rivalries and drug disputes into lethal melees of attack and reprisal that can occur in waves. There was a 33 percent rise in homicides last year, to 159, compared with 120 in 2013 in this city of 318,000.
Jennifer M. Joyce, the city’s circuit attorney, or prosecutor, an elected position, complains that in St. Louis, the illegal possession of a gun is too often “a crime without a consequence,” making it difficult to stop confrontation from turning lethal.
At the same time, deeper social roots of violence such as addiction and unemployment continue unchecked. And city officials also cite what they call a “Ferguson effect,” an increase in crime last year as police officers were diverted to control protests after a white officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in the nearby suburb on Aug. 9.
The violence is not uniform. Nearly all the increase in murders in St. Louis last year occurred in eight neighborhoods, said Richard B. Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
So what is the solution?
But everyone — politicians to social workers — points to persistent causes including poverty, a youth culture that glorifies gun violence and what some say has been an unusually permissive legal response to guns.
“Ferguson didn’t help, but this homicide rate had been building,” Ms. Joyce said. She called for tougher responses to gun possession, which she described as an early warning sign of violence to come.
Missouri, with a strongly pro-gun population outside the big cities, has permissive laws including one that allows the carrying of a loaded gun in a car without a permit. When the police discover a gun in a car with several passengers, including some with felony records, but no one admits to owning the gun, criminal charges are often impossible, Mr. Rosenfeld said.
In addition, according to a 2014 study by Mr. Rosenfeld and his colleagues, a majority of those who are convicted of illegally possessing a gun but not caught using it in a crime receive probation rather than jail time. Gun laws and enforcement are stiffer in many other cities.
Besides focusing on guns, Ms. Joyce hopes to duplicate a much-praised program of the Manhattan district attorney, which tracks the most violent individuals and tries to make sure that, when they are picked up even for minor violations, they receive special attention from prosecutors.
Of course, there is only so much police can do.
More precise police work is well and good, said James Clark, vice president for community outreach at Better Family Life, a nonprofit social service group based in Wells-Goodfellow just two blocks from the notorious intersection of Arlington and Ridge Avenues, where the last murder of 2014 took place.
“But we’ve got to stop expecting the police to solve the crime problem,” Mr. Clark said, adding that only with a huge increase in social aid could a cultural collapse be prevented. “There is a void that the police can’t fill.”
Mr. Clark, a respected presence on the streets, is trying to help rescue youths and families one at a time, sending workers out to knock on doors and link people up with social services, from drug treatment to anger management to prenatal care.
“Our neighborhoods are resource deserts,” he said. “Every neighborhood needs a center with drug treatment, G.E.D. lessons, recreation for the kids.”
Murder seems to be the crime that police can so least prevent. It seems like such an irrational and crazed decision to take another persons life that even police are helpless to prevent unless they are there right then.
If I was in St. Louis, I would support more officers just as I would social resources. People need hope and a community free of guns and cracking down on the guns will make things better but there is also something else at play in St. Louis and if there is such a willingness to take another person’s life over a minor thing like an insult, then that is something that police can’t change.