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St. Louis officials highlight progress on crime in the city but say there's still work to do

A white man in a police uniform speaks to the media.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Chief Robert Tracy, of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, gives a crime update at his one-year anniversary with the department on Tuesday during a press conference at City Hall in downtown St. Louis.

In a new public safety report released Tuesday, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones highlighted milestones reached by the city on crime since she took office in April 2021.

The year before Jones took office, there were 263 homicides across the city, and that total has decreased by 40% as of last year, she said. Other milestones include establishing the city’s first Office of Violence Prevention, founded in July 2022; hiring St. Louis Metro Police Chief Robert Tracy one year ago as of Tuesday — the first police chief from outside St. Louis in the agency’s history; taking steps to fix the city’s broken 911 system, and getting insurance to ensure the city jail is secure with proper locks and access points.

City leaders said Tuesday they are investing over $40 million into the city’s roadways to ensure safer streets, and construction is expected to begin later this year and continue into 2025. And as part of the city’s Economic Justice Action Plan, more than $287 million will help develop and transform some of the most underserved communities in parts of north and south St. Louis, Jones said. The funds come from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act.

“We will make our streets safer not just for cars, but for pedestrians, cyclists and public transit riders,” Jones said Tuesday.

The report also includes insight shared last week by city leaders, that homicides were down 21% between 2022 and 2023, marking the lowest point in the past decade. Juvenile shootings were down by 47%.

Auto thefts, which have plagued the city the past few years, are down 19%, leaders said.

Chief Tracy on Tuesday said people like to measure crime by the pandemic years, but he insisted that crime being at its lowest in a decade is worth celebrating. Community members at a public safety town hall Monday evening criticized police for covering up their shortcomings and sometimes blaming them.

“We’re accountable to the community,” Tracy said Tuesday. “And we accept that challenge, because we’re always looking to improve and trying to build that trust that's so fragile.” He said the department has lost hundreds of officers over the past few years.

Jones said the city was recently vilified as one of the most dangerous in the country, despite having one of the largest police departments per capita in 2020. Leaders said the homicide clearance rate is currently 75%, which is outpacing the national average and indicates growth in community trust.

“Our strategies also include a deep commitment to community policing and engagement, and building and strengthening relationships with residents in each of our neighborhoods,” Tracy said. He said he has attended over 100 meetings and community events during his first year in office.

But the violence hits close to home, according to Jones.

“I’m encouraged by our progress, but let me be clear, we are not here to celebrate,” Jones said Tuesday. “One life lost to violence is one to many. And personally, I have lost four family members to gun violence since I became mayor in 2021, three of them regionally.

“We still have a great deal of work to do.”

The Office of Violence Prevention, started by Jones in 2022 with an infusion of American Rescue Plan Act funding, has established partnerships with more than 30 community organizations focused on crime prevention and intervention.

Serving more than 3,000 residents since its opening, OVP has connected youth with safe spaces featuring a variety of programs and implemented crime intervention methods to deter individuals from resolving their problems with firearms, the report states.

Crisis management

Public Safety Director Charles Coyle on Tuesday acknowledged that 911 emergency dispatchers have been known to have long hold times for callers. Last year they were only answering 50% of calls within 10 seconds, he said.

The team has been at 80% this month and in December.

“In some of those days, we have actually gone past 90%,” Coyle said, adding that 90% within 10 seconds is around the national average.

This increase in response can be attributed to more than 35 new emergency dispatch hires between July and October last year, after staffing was down by more than 50 positions, Coyle said. The public safety department is now down to 12 vacancies for dispatchers and EMS, he added. The department is considering adding 24/7 day care to help retain emergency staff members.

“This is a constantly changing process,” Coyle said. “As we train these dispatchers, we recognize that it’s not for everyone. We may have some dispatchers that find out what the stress level is like and decide not to stay on the job. … We’re still pushing forward with this.”

In 2021, the city created a new job classification, public safety dispatcher, to streamline practices. Since last year, both police and Emergency Medical Service dispatchers have been dispatching from the same facility, the report states. In 2023, the Office of Violence Prevention launched the Community Centered Crisis Response Team, which consists of behavioral health clinicians who are embedded into the 911 call center and tag along with police to assist with nonpolice interventions when appropriate to address the social, behavioral health and mental health needs of individuals.

The behavioral teams operate seven days a week with three units across the city. According to OVP Director Wilford Pinkney Jr., the goal is to improve public safety by addressing underlying conditions that contribute to crime.

The team did a soft launch in November and has responded to about 14 calls for service so far, he said.

Lacretia Wimbley is a general assignment reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.