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Commentary: A spate of shootings: Who's in charge here?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: In just under six hours on the night of June 10-11, 17 people were shot on city streets. Another unfortunate was stabbed during the period.

The following day, a senior police commander, Major Joseph Spiess, was ambushed while participating in a crackdown on street violence. Thankfully, he escaped unharmed, which is more than can be said for the police car he was driving.

The next day, four people died in a murder-suicide workplace shooting on Cherokee Street. Welcome to summer in the city….

I never put two and two together, that it was my father. I mean, it's St. Louis There's shootings all the time. -Yusuf Dirir, explaining his initial reaction to reports that his father murdered three employees before killing himself.

This concentrated outpouring of bloodshed was a bit much even by the relaxed local standards for mayhem. It prompted Post-Dispatch editorial writer Kevin Horrigan to conclude, “There are just too many damned guns on the streets.” Wayne LaPierre might have trouble keeping a straight face while trying to refute that charge.

Then again, there’s no reason the executive vice president of the NRA — or anybody else in the gun lobby, for that matter — shouldn’t be smiling because nothing sells guns faster than gunfights. Who wants to be the only guy in town without a pistol?

Believe it or not, reliable statistics demonstrate that the incidence of violent crime has actually declined dramatically over the past few decades. On average, St. Louis’ annual homicide count for recent years is about two-thirds of what it was during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, thus mirroring a national trend in that direction.

A variety of factors have been suggested for the improvement. Truth-in-sentencing and habitual criminal statutes have incapacitated more offenders for longer periods of time. Steven Levitt (Freakonomics) makes a compelling argument that legalized abortion has reduced the rate of juvenile delinquency. Others contend concealed-carry laws allow responsible citizens to better defend themselves, thereby making them less desirable targets.

Whatever the reasons for the statistical good news, most people would agree that if it actually is safer to do business in the city today, it doesn’t feel that way. That perception, I suspect, is the unintended by-product of two well-intentioned reforms. The ambush of Major Spiess demonstrates the first of these.

On the day following the attempted murder, three suspects were arrested. They were taken into custody without incident. Had this crime occurred 30 years ago, these men would have likely resisted arrest — whether they wanted to or not.

At the time, cops carried nightsticks. People who tried to kill police officers often made gestures when apprehended that the cops interpreted as threatening. The perps subsequently found out how the sticks worked. They would then visit the ER prior to booking. While this was not an every day occurrence, it was also not unheard of.

Every morning, the arrestees from the night before were paraded before detectives from the Bureau of Investigation to see if any of them answered the description of subjects the dicks may have been looking for. This uplifting morning ritual was known as the Daily Show-up.

Now and then, some miscreant would appear with the top of his head wrapped in hospital gauze. In the parlance of the day, that chapeau was known as a “Third District turban” and taken as a sign that the wearer did not work and play well with others. Evolving technology and Rodney King have since made the turban unfashionable.

Today, cops are subjected to far greater scrutiny concerning the civil liberties of suspects, and nightsticks have since been replaced by pepper mace and Tasers. These are undeniably humane improvements but all progress comes with a price.

Violent offenders tend to be impulsive — they react to the immediate and aren’t overly concerned with what may or may not happen six months later in court. The recognition that the cops might kick your ass — right here, right now — used to give the authorities a decided advantage in the struggle to control the streets.

That “fear factor” has been vitiated, which is an advancement for democratic principles that has also made brazen attacks against the police more prevalent. In the calculus of the moment, the offender has little to lose by venting aggression against his captors because he’s going to wind up in jail regardless.

But the nightstick was a primitive, brutal instrument; and it’s difficult to argue for its return. The modern vehicular pursuit policy, however, is another matter.

Several years ago, the then chief of police altered his department’s high-speed pursuit policy with the approval of the Police Board. Essentially, all chases except those involving bona fide violent criminals who posed an immediate threat were forbidden.

Because these pursuits imperil suspects, cops and innocent citizens alike, the new policy looked good on paper. Unfortunately, it was also announced publicly. Now, if an officer jumped a stolen car, he couldn’t chase it if the driver fled — and the thief had been formally advised of this new arrangement.

The next year, in St. Louis as across the nation, most major crime categories were in decline. The one notable local exception was — you guessed it — auto theft, which had gone through the roof.

Suspicious persons, burglary suspects and car thieves were suddenly free to take their chances by fleeing rather than submitting to lawful detention. And the cops were forbidden to chase them. Needless to say, this new development further emboldened the criminal element.

In the last analysis, it’s all about control of the streets.  There will always be criminals and they will always be natural adversaries of the police. But when we choose to handcuff those we pay to protect us, we end up living in a city where the son of a mass-murderer doesn’t feel safe because “there’s shootings all the time.”

(Editor's note: In an earlier version, the city homicide rate was described as one-third of what it was in the late '80s and early '90s. It declined by one-third.)

M.W. Guzy
M.W. (Michael William) Guzy began as a contributor to St. Louis media in 1997 with an article, “Everybody Loves a Dead Cop,” on the Post-Dispatch Commentary page. In addition to the St. Louis Beacon and now St. Louis Public Radio, his work has been featured in the St. Louis Journalism Review, the Arch City Chronicle, In the Line of Duty and on tompaine.com. He has appeared on the Today Show and Hannity & Combs, as well as numerous local radio and television newscasts and discussion programs.