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Officer Down: does rise in police deaths indicate deteriorating police-community relationship?

St. Louis Police Officer, and U.S. Marshals Task Force Officer Jeff Helbling delivers remarks during a memorial service for Deputy U.S. Marshal John B. Perry on March 13, 2011. Helbling was wounded in the March 8 attack that killed Perry.
(UPI/Shane T. McCoy / US Marshals)
St. Louis Police Officer, and U.S. Marshals Task Force Officer Jeff Helbling delivers remarks during a memorial service for Deputy U.S. Marshal John B. Perry on March 13, 2011. Helbling was wounded in the March 8 attack that killed Perry.

It’s been a bloody year for cops around the country. Already, dozens have been killed in the line of duty. In St. Louis, two law enforcement officers have been killed. Some in the criminal justice field say assaults against police officers are high in St. Louis and they worry that attitudes against police here are getting worse.

In the first of a two-part series, St. Louis Public Radio’s Julie Bierach explores the dangers police officers face today and spoke with some people living in higher crime neighborhoods about how they feel about their police.

2011 Could be Record Year for Officer Deaths

On a sunny Friday morning in late April, a black hearse carries the body of 34 year-old Officer Darryl Hall to Pleasant Grove Baptist Church. More than a hundred St. Louis police officers stand in attention. Hall is one of at least 40 law enforcement officers murdered so far this year according to the Officer Down Memorial Page. On April 24, Hall was shot outside a St. Louis night club. St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay was at the funeral.

“Every day what they do is protect us,” Slay said. “They also risk their lives as we see here today.”

Police work is dangerous. This is nothing new. But the number of cops gunned down this year is up by roughly 25 percent compared to last year. The figures are troubling federal officials, who are looking at ways to keep officers more safe. Dave Klinger, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri - St. Louis said that if the trend continues, 2011 could be a record year.

“On the other hand, what we see is bounce around, a baseline for the last decade of about 50 officers murdered per year,” Klinger said. “Sometimes it’s up to 70, which was the highest in 2001, and that takes out the 72 officers that were murdered in the 9-1-1 attacks in New York. And then it’s been as low as in the 40’s.”

Scenes like Officer Hall’s funeral are becoming all too familiar to police. In March, U.S. Marshal John Perry was killed while attempting to arrest 35-year-old Carlos Boles in the St. Louis Dutchtown neighborhood. Boles opened fire on Perry and two other officers when they arrived to arrest him. Perry was shot in the head and died.  Another U.S. Marshal and a St. Louis Police Officer were also shot and injured.

“I don’t feel no remorse for them. That’s life, you know."

In the neighborhood where Perry was killed, there’s a group of people that don’t like the police. They don’t trust them. Some even question whether Boles was justifiably killed during the stand-off.

“How do we know who did the shooting? How do we know?” 48-year-old Karen Whitehead said. “One of the cops could have killed that cop for all we know.”

Whitehead has lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years. On this day, she and a man, who would only identify himself as “D,” are sitting outside a home in the Marquette Park area.

“They just need to stop harassing us,” “D” said. “You know, we can’t really even walk down the street without being stopped and searched.”

“D” says his distrust for the police comes from experience. One time he was sitting on his front porch when the cops pulled up. They said they received a call about a nuisance.

“They locked me up for that. I’m sick of it. You know,” “D” said. “This summer it’s really fitting to get crazy around here. This is when they really get trippin’ for real.”

A few blocks away, I meet a young man who calls himself “Black.” He’s standing in front of a home as young children play in the yard. He said he doesn’t have a whole lot of sympathy for police these days.

“No, I don’t feel no remorse for them. That’s life, you know. Some people don’t give a [expletive] about police, you know, they’ll shoot back,” “Black” said. “They just get tired of the police [expletive] with them for no reason, they’ll shoot back.”

Not everyone in the community feels this way. Mark Williams is practicing his golf swing in nearby Marquette Park. He said there’s a misconception that most people in the neighborhood dislike the police.

“The property owners in this area are backing the police force,” Williams said. “The people that are renters in this neighborhood, or temporary residents of this area, probably don’t. The drug dealers and gang bangers that are running around up and down these corners definitely don’t, I'm certain.”

A View from a "Front-row Seat" of the Criminal Justice System

Everyone I spoke to in Dutchtown said they don’t condone the use of violence against police, but it’s attitudes like these that have some in the criminal justice field concerned. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce is one of them. She said that since she took office in January 2001, she’s prosecuted nearly 2,000 cases of assaults against police. She’s even taken a spitting case to a full-blown jury trial.

“And some people may think ‘Wow, Jennifer that’s a pretty extreme use of the jury system,’” Joyce said. “I’m fortunate, I have a job where people don’t spit on me. I can’t imagine what it’d be like. And so it’s an assault and I prosecute it as such.”

Joyce said that she’s noticing a general lack of respect for police by some people in St. Louis. She doesn’t have statistics to back it up, but she’s certain it’s getting worse.

“I’ve been a prosecutor for 17 years, I’ve been Circuit Attorney for 10 years, and it seems to me that the prevalence of this attitude is increasing,” Joyce said. “That’s just my sense of it, from my front-row seat of the criminal justice system.”

A Societal Problem, Statistics & Gun Laws

James Clark is with the non-profit Better Family Life. He works with young adults in St. Louis’s high crime neighborhoods. He thinks these bad attitudes about law enforcement isn’t really a police issue, it’s a societal issue. And that hating police is just part of the swagger, part of the macho code.

“In neighborhoods, it is just popular; it is just the culture to say I don’t like the police,” Clark said. “I think Tupac Shukur said it best, 'I rap about not liking police because it’s popular.' But then the interviewer asked him, ‘Well, Tupac, have you ever had a bad brush with the law?’ and he said never.”

It’s hard to find statistics to support the notion that negative attitudes towards the police are on the rise. Criminologist Dave Klinger said there’s always been a segment of the population that hates the police.

“The question is how elastic is that? And how much has it shifted over time? So is there in fact a growing discourtesy or virulent opposition, or whatever, to the police? And nobody really knows,” Klinger said.

St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom says it’s hard to pinpoint why there’s more violence against police these days. But one reason, he believes, is a real political hot button issue: there are more guns on the streets due to Missouri’s lax gun laws.

“I think it’s the opinion of most major city chiefs is that more guns on the streets makes your community less safe,” Isom said. “There is no statistical research that indicates that having everyone armed is a good thing for a community.”

Despite the concerns that assaults on police are becoming more prevalent, Isom is an optimist. He knows the majority of St. Louis residents are happy with the police, it’s just a small group that isn’t, and that group, he said, just disrespects authority in general.

“We are the authority figures that they see in their lives every day, and so we’re the ones that they are going to lash out at,” Isom said.

Whatever the reason, or motive, the fact remains, at least 40 officers are dead. And cops across the country will most likely attend more funerals like Officer Hall’s this year.

  • Tomorrow, Julie will report on what police are doing to reach out to people to improve their relationship with the community.