Violence hits the heart of St. Louis residents — some say police aren’t doing enough
Precious T. Jones had a plan.
She’d move her family away from St. Louis before it’s too late — before she lost anyone else. She had lost her brother Paul Jones to a fentanyl overdose in 2021 and her nephew Corey Blackwell-Gines to gun violence a year later.
Uprooting her family was a desperate attempt to escape violence and crime in the city and county, where police have been criticized for lacking transparency and solving homicide cases too slowly. Crime trends appear to be improving in some parts of the St. Louis region. Public safety officials reported last month that the St. Louis homicide rate last year fell to its lowest level in a decade and dropped 40% since 2021.
Jones was among dozens of people who attended a public safety town hall meeting last month, where community members challenged St. Louis Public Safety Director Charles Coyle and city Police Chief Robert Tracy to be more present in the community.
Jones and her three sons — Princeton Jones, 24; Esau Jones, 20, and Preston Jones, 20, had been bouncing between the St. Louis area and their new home in Texas for six months when Jones received a call early June 17, 2022, that Preston had been shot while sleeping at his apartment in Hazelwood.
“I kept saying the same prayer over and over,” Jones, 40, said through tears. “I kept saying that he shall live and not die.”
By the time she made it there, Preston had died as his brother Princeton held him in his arms.
It was a moment no person wants to imagine, their mother said.
“I kept saying the same prayer over and over. I kept saying that he shall live and not die.”Precious Jones
Compounding her pain, Precious Jones said, Hazelwood police officers who arrived treated her with zero compassion. She said the officers arrested Princeton and Esau, accusing them of refusing to share their identities and hiding evidence, while also citing outstanding warrants.
When asked about those claims, Sgt. Brendan Gilbert of the Hazelwood Police Department in an emailed statement to St. Louis Public Radio said it was a “chaotic” scene. Gilbert is one of the officers working on Preston’s case.
“The witnesses were being very uncooperative,” Gilbert said of Jones’ sons and other juveniles who were present. “They would not identify themselves, they refused to give statements and were hiding evidence.”
Gilbert said both of Jones’ sons, whose names he did not disclose, were arrested because they had active warrants and hid evidence from police at the scene of Preston’s shooting. One son was “aggressive” with officers, Gilbert said.
Jones said police did not disclose what the warrants concerned and whisked away the grieving mother’s two boys in handcuffs — a move that she said angered and hurt her more after just losing Preston. She said she saw police kick one of her sons while arresting him and laughed while on the scene.
“The family became upset, understandably,” Gilbert said. “We explained what happened and why it happened. We all started working together at that point in an attempt to figure out how and why Preston was shot. Unfortunately we have not been able to identify the suspect in the case.”
Gilbert and Precious Jones have kept in contact about the case via text message. But it’s been more than a year since Preston’s killing, and Jones said she still hasn’t received an autopsy report. She claimed she’s been tossed back and forth among the police department, the medical examiner’s office and St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell’s office in pursuit of the report.
(St. Louis Public Radio has also requested a copy of Preston’s autopsy report last month. That request is pending.)
Most people don’t have the time, the resources or the power to force public officials to provide information they’re entitled to, said Blake Strode, executive director of the legal advocacy group ArchCity Defenders.
He said there are many in Precious Jones’ shoes who can't get straight answers or obtain copies of police or autopsy reports.
“Most people in positions of power don’t see these things as real problems, and if they do, they act like they don’t see these things as real problems,” Strode said. ArchCity Defenders has been a force in the region, fighting against the criminalization of poverty and state violence. It was one of several organizations that pushed for the closing of the city’s former jail, known as the Workhouse, in 2021, citing inhumane conditions for inmates.
After Preston's death, Jones founded the nonprofit Breaking Generational Poverty Foundation. It’s helped her cope, she said. The group assists individuals and families in the city, county and abroad who have lost their children by connecting them with the appropriate resources and advocating for mothers like herself.
She specified that she doesn’t hate police but wishes police were more empathetic in the way they treat people.
“We have to stick together as a community,” Jones said. “Even if we have differences with one another, we have to put those differences to the side for the betterment of the community because we are going to have generations of kids growing up without parents.” Her son Preston left behind two children, both under the age of 3, she said.
Despite complaints from community members, city leaders credit police work with the overall drop in crime rates in St. Louis. Precious Jones was among many who criticized St. Louis Circuit Attorney Gabe Gore, Tracy and Coyle last month.
Others at the meeting, including Inez Bordeaux, manager of community collaborations at ArchCity Defenders, accused Coyle of reporting inaccurate information about conditions at the city jail.
Although Tracy made promises to be as active as possible in the community, Jones and others criticized the department for falling short on living up to them. Jones said Tracy was unresponsive when she invited him for a community versus police basketball game last year. She commended officers from other departments who did show up, however.
Compassion goes a long way, she added.
“They shake your hand in public, they make you all these promises,” Jones said. “And when it’s over and you reach out, it’s the same thing.