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'Concern' And 'Alarm' Over Uptick In Homicides In St. Louis

(Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio)

Updated on April 29th to clarify that the data released by the circuit court dealt only with the speed of getting gun possession cases to final disposition.

St. Louis police chief Sam Dotson says a big uptick in homicides in 2014 is "concerning and alarming."

The chief spoke to the Board of Aldermen's public safety committee on Thursday to discuss the latest crime statistics. There have been 44 murders since the beginning of the year. That compares to 30 people by this time in 2013. 

2014 Crime through April 22

"Homicide is the single-most difficult crime to impact," Dotson said. "On Easter Sunday, a young man murdered his mother in their home, hid the body in a storage area, and we weren't aware of it until Tuesday. There is no intervention that law enforcement could have had that would have precluded that crime from happening."

That's not stopping the department from trying.

The commander of North Patrol, Ronnie Robinson, has started a program that brings together the families of the victims and the shooters in aggravated assaults in an effort to stop any retaliation that could add to the homicide total. Robinson said he's also working to make sure that people get the mental health treatment they need. Dotson said he would strongly consider using asset forfeiture money to fund additional crime prevention programs.

But alcohol and drugs are the driving factor in many homicides, said Lt. Col. Al Adkins, who oversees the homicide investigations. In 2013, 115 of the 120 homicide victims had drugs and alcohol in their system when they were killed. And because homicide victims and suspects fit similar profiles, it's likely many of those who committed the crimes were also drunk or high.

The fault of the courts

Dotson used Thursday's meeting to repeat a criticism of judges in the city that he's cited before: They hand down sentences that are too light for the crime.

"Victims in homicides, suspects in homicides, people that we encounter on a regular basis are no strangers to the criminal justice system. Yet they’re still allowed to walk the street. They still have guns," Doston said. Though numbers released by the court last week show that judges are addressing gun possession cases more quickly, the chief said, speed does not ensure that the outcome is one that can keep the community safe.

For example, Dotson said, judges often suspend the imposition of a sentence, which  means it does not show up as a conviction in someone's record.  Without a criminal record, the department can't ask the federal courts to take the case and seek a stiffer sentence than is possible in state courts.

Dotson and Mayor Francis Slay, as well as prosecutor Jennifer Joyce, are pushing to assign two judges to all gun cases. Defendants would also get more supervision before their case goes to court and if they are put on probation. Their proposal was rejected by the court's judges.

Numbers game

The chief did have some good news for the committee. Despite an increase in murders and shootings, violent crime, as defined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is down year over year. Total crime, including those against persons and against property, was down nearly 12 percent from 2013 to 2014. There were no crimes against persons in Forest Park, where a special detail will begin patrolling May 12.

Still, many aldermen weren't buying the narrative. As he has before, Ald. Antonio French accused the police chief of ignoring how much violence affects the neighborhoods where it occurs.

"It is disheartening to have the guy in charge of fixing the problem saying on television that it isn’t a problem," French said. "And it feels like when we come down to these questions of violent crime in neighborhoods, that the default of both you and the [Slay] administration is to take this numbers game approach." He also repeated an assertion that neighborhoods like his don't get the same amount of resources as other areas of the city.

Political tensions

The French-Dotson clash was one of several born of politics that erupted during and after the meeting. The first came when Ald. Phyllis Young, who chairs the public safety committee, told the aldermen they would only have three minutes each for a second round of questions. Aldermen who were not members of the public safety committee would not allowed to ask questions. In addition, citizens who had come to the meeting would not be permitted to speak. When the crowd reacted negatively, Young warned that she would have the marshals clear the room.

"That's accountability?" French asked ,incredulously. "This is the first time we've seen the police chief since January.  I don't know if you're here to protect the administration or protect the public, but I have lots of questions and have not been able to get answers from the chief. This is my opportunity and I think this meeting should go as long as it needs to."

That was when Ald. Sharon Tyus jumped in and requested permission to ask questions.  

"I have never been denied access as a member of the board to ask questions. You're not doing yourself any good to do this. You need to back down off this position. It's an irresponsible position,"  she said to applause. 

Tyus later called Young "racist" and "ignorant." And she vowed never to have the police chief at any neighborhood meetings until she was allowed to ask questions. However, the two spoke for a while after the meeting ended and they eventually shook hands. 

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.