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Criminologist Says Decrease In Police Activity Contributed To St. Louis Crime Spike

St. Louis city police officers attempt to block demonstrators during an anti-Trump rally in downtown St. Louis in November 2016.
Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
Criminologist Richard Rosenfeld attributes the rise in St. Louis crime this summer to decreased police activity because of departmental guidelines for social distancing and mandatory quarantines.

Rhetoric about "law and order" is central to President Trump's reelection campaign. He has blamed Democratic mayors and social unrest for the rising violent crime rates in cities nationwide.

But criminologist Richard Rosenfeld said that while Trump is right to highlight the increases in crime, the president is wrong to point to Black Lives Matter protests as the cause of the increased violence this summer.

Instead, Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology and criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said a decrease in police activity because of mandatory quarantines, social distancing and low staffing levels has contributed to rising crime in St. Louis. He also attributed part of the increase to tense police relations and increased reliance on resolving disputes without police involvement.

Rosenfeld shared his insights with St. Louis Public Radio’s Kayla Drake.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Kayla Drake: Have Black Lives Matter protests been the reason for spikes in crime nationwide?

Richard Rosenfeld: By and large, the protests we've seen since the end of May, first part of June, have not been particularly violent or involved substantial looting, fire setting, and so on.

Drake: What is happening with police relations in communities that have high crime?

Rosenfeld: When we think about disadvantaged communities in our city, whose relationship with the police department has historically been tense during periods of widespread protests or police violence, those tense relations become even more fraught. And if police legitimacy falls sufficiently, what that does is create, if you will, a void in the community and that void is often filled by so-called “street justice,” people taking matters into their own hands and settling disputes.

Drake: So what are some of the other reasons behind the summer spike in violent crime?

Rosenfeld: One is the pandemic and its impact on policing in our own city and other cities. When police officers are out on quarantine because they have the virus or they've been exposed to someone with the virus, often a colleague, that reduces policing in the city. So we see in the city of St. Louis, for example, a big drop compared to the same period last year in stops for traffic violations. We see a big drop in pedestrian checks, in checks of occupied vehicles and in checks of unoccupied vehicles. In all of these ways, police activity and police presence is down in our city. Though it’s begun to come back somewhat. And those are the kinds of activities that can help stem the increase in violence.

Drake: Are you saying we need more police officers in the city? Mayor Lyda Krewson has said the city is down over 100 police officers?

Rosenfeld: My own view is that staffing levels in the police department are lower than they should be. Having said that, however, we could have lots and lots of officers on the payroll, but if they're not out there performing because of social distancing requirements, if they're not out there performing the kinds of activities that can reduce crime, then no matter how many officers nominally we have in the department, it's not going to do much to reduce crime.

Drake: Currently, what are violent crime levels in the city?

Rosenfeld: With respect to homicide, the most serious violent crime, we’re seeing some reduction in the increase in the recent period. So, for example, over the last four to five weeks homicides in the city have increased by about 5%, compared with the same period last year. Now any increase, of course, is troubling. But an increase of 5% can certainly be handled.

Drake: And moving into the fall. What are you going to be paying attention to?

Rosenfeld: St. Louis and other big cities have chronically high levels of violent crime. And indeed also serious property crime. And to bring down those chronically high levels, we have to go beyond police reform. And we really have to address the underlying conditions. Those conditions are persisting poverty, high levels of joblessness, inadequate education and training, and the degree of social isolation and residential segregation that we see in our own city and many other places.

Follow Kayla on Twitter: @_kayladrake

Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.