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Local control heightens significance of crime-fighting efforts in mayoral contest

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 20, 2013 - Crime has been such a longstanding issue in St. Louis that the city even rates its own “Crime in St. Louis” page on Wikipedia.

St. Louis’ regular ranking as among the nation’s most crime-ridden cities has been a troubling fact for decades.  And it’s among the reasons the issue regularly emerges as a key topic of debate in the city's quadrennial contest for mayor.

That helps explain why St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and his two rivals in the March 5 Democratic primary,  Aldermanic President Lewis Reed and former Alderman Jimmie Matthews, often field questions about crime during their campaign appearances.

But this year, the crime issue is shaped by another factor that hasn’t played into mayoral contests for 150 years.

As of July 1, the St. Louis mayor will control the city's police department. Voters statewide approved a measure last November that returns day-to-day control of the St. Louis police department to City Hall – in effect, the mayor’s office.

Slay and his political allies worked hard to win back that power, lost when the state took over the city police department in 1861, during the early days of the Civil War. A close associate of Slay, Sam Dotson, has just been installed as the new police chief.

The result of such dramatic change means that whoever is elected mayor this spring soon can no longer decry crime while claiming limited power to combat it or engage in the old habit of blaming politicians in Jefferson City.

More than many issues, crime is personal

This year’s mayor contest also comes amid heightened focus on crime in St. Louis.

Since the 1960s, St. Louis has been plagued by the defection of jobs and population, a hollowing-out that left crime in its wake -- and a problem plaguing many older cities in the nation's largely Midwestern "Rust Belt" or industrial heartland.

Analysts also long have maintained that St. Louis' per-capita crime rate is skewed because the core city is geographically small as a result of the 1876 split with St. Louis County. The crime rate for most other cities, including New York, include larger swaths of territory and many lower-crime areas.

That debate aside, the city's mayoral candidates say it's more important to look at trends.

Although crime overall has been dropping in St. Louis in recent years, violent crime – notably, homicides – has remained steady and lately has attracted more attention because of some high-profile murders.

The latest figures show St. Louis’ murder rate, when population is taken into account, to be several times that of Chicago or New York.

Experts note that crime – and fears about it – also is an issue that stands apart from most others.  “Crime touches people very personally,’’ said Dave Robertson, political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Crime, he explained, affects how people feel about their neighborhoods, their homes, and where they work or travel.

“It touches on the issue on class, it touches on the issue of race,” he continued. “It can be an issue that…allows people to talk about things that worry them in a way that nobody can object to. Everybody would oppose crime.”

Crime’s impact on a city also transcends the act itself. “It’s certainly a negative for a city that is described as high crime. In a lot of ways, it’s a negative for investment and therefore, jobs,” Robertson said. “It’s a negative for quality for life. It’s a negative for even education because people will be worried about moving into and finding schools for children if they think it’s a high-crime area.”

As a result, St. Louis mayors – and the contests to elect them – often have focused on promises to address the long- and short-term factors that cause crime. Local control heightens the stakes for the victor, who now may be expected to deliver.

Crime200820092010201120125-year %
Aggravated Assault4,3454,2393,7483,5233,571-18%
Auto Theft5,8414,9624,2633,3693,489-40%

Data from SLMPD.org

Mayoral candidates lay out their visions

Slay and his chief of staff, Jeff Rainford, say that more City Hall coordination already is obvious in the battle to fight crime, and the factors that feed into it.

Rainford points to the actions taken in the College Hills neighborhood, in the 21st Ward, where gang violence has prompted a spate of at least six shootings, two of them fatal, within a week.

“You can see in College Hills the mayor’s approach,” Rainford said. “For the first time ever, it is a complete team effort to eradicate nonsense.”

Aside from additional police, the city’s animal control section already has gone in to cite animal owners and pick up dangerous dogs. Rainford said. Plans call for the city’s Forestry and Streets departments to clean up the alleys.

Overall, said Rainford,  “You’re going to see a department much more responsive to crime.”

He said the administration’s mantra is: “Prevent crime, reduce crime, make every neighborhood safe.”

Slay also wants to integrate the new “hot-spot policing” approach – already getting attention in College Hills, into regular police patrols, “and not just be a special patrol.”

Another focus, said Rainford, will be coordinating computer data “to focus on the most dangerous criminals.”

“You’ve got these people who create mayhem in our neighborhoods,” he said. Slay’s aim is "spot them when they get picked up for even routine offenses, such as drunken driving, and keep track of such troublemakers.”

Slay also is highlighting his support for special “gun courts” to bore down on people armed with guns while committing crime. Rainford said that may be the best option, since the Slay administration doesn’t expect the General Assembly to allow urban areas to exercise more control over guns.

On the crime-prevention side, Slay cites his administration’s efforts to curb lead-paint poisioning – which can cause violent tendencies among untreated minors – and his continued push to expand charter schools and to increase summer jobs programs, especially for those “at-risk kids from violent neighborhoods,” said Rainford.

Dotson’s plan to reduce the number of city police districts to six, from the current nine, already has sparked some debate between Slay and Reed.

Slay is on board with the new chief’s approach, while Reed wants to see more details. Reed said in an interview that he does, however, agree with the basic principle of reducing the number of districts.

Said Reed: “The first thing we would do is an assessment of how the districts are laid out.”

Reed also is leery about Slay’s promises, asserting that the mayor has failed to deliver during his past 12 years in office.  For example, Reed said, he wants to know what happened to the plan to hire 50 additional police with the additional money raised through a public-safety sales tax passed a few years ago.

(Slay says that he has increased spending for the police department, but that a sizable chunk has had to be used to cover the rising costs of the department’s pension system, which he wants to revamp.)

If elected mayor, Reed said he would start by setting up meetings “with the membership of the police department to find out more about their working conditions.”

Overall, Reed said he wants “more long-range planning” in dealing with the department and crime.

And it’s unclear if Reed would retain the new chief. “I don’t know enough about Dotson to make that determination right now,” Reed said.

But he noted that Dotson had previously worked for Slay as chief of operations and “he was especially loyal.”

As for Matthews, he cites a lack of attention on what he sees as the primary cause of crime in St. Louis: the lack of jobs for urban youth.

If elected, Matthews said he will focus first and foremost on jobs programs that he believes are the best way to get budding criminals off the streets and curb crime.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.