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Despite Overall Crime Decline, Homicides Spike In City In 2014

Flickr | alancleaver_2000

Updated with comments from police chief Sam Dotson and circuit attorney Jennifer Joyce.

Even though overall crime continued its downward trend in St. Louis, 2014 was a violent year in the city, with 159 people killed. 

That's an increase of more than 32 percent from 2013, according to numbers released Monday by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Person crimes -- which include homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault -- were up more than five percent, while property crimes were down by about the same amount. That led to an overall decrease of about 3 percent compared to 2013.

Police chief Sam Dotson said the numbers could have been even better if not for the unrest that erupted after Michael Brown was shot and killed in August, and the November announcement that a grand jury would not charge former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in Brown's death.

"At the end of July, crime was down 12 percent. That tells me that our strategies were really getting into neighborhoods," Doston said. "Then, when we look at the last quarter and a half or so of the year, police officers have been tasked with many other jobs. They haven't been in the neighborhoods the way we would like to see them."

Dotson said the lack of police presence in the neighborhoods emboldened a criminal element. Officers were also working 12-hour days, he added, and might have been feeling a sense of "trepidation."

"They didn't want to be the next Darren Wilson, the next cause of social unrest," he said.

Dotson acknowledged that he had the ability to keep more officers in the neighborhoods, rather than focus so much energy on protesters. But he said he made the best decisions with the information he had at the time.

"Our number one goal is always to keep people safe," Dotson said. During the protests in the city of St. Louis, no one was seriously injured. We did a good job at protecting property, and then protecting the First Amendment. You have to do the best you can at all the jobs at the same time."

He said in the last couple of weeks, the department has returned to normal, with arrests and self-directed policing both going up.

Criminologist Rick Rosenfeld, who does analysis work for the SLMPD, said in a December interview on St. Louis on the Air that the protests may have led to an increase in property crime. But he said they didn't cause the increase in homicides.

"One would expect increases in St. Louis County if Ferguson were the trigger," Rosenfeld told host Don Marsh. "This seems specific to the city. I don't see it in cities I usually compare St. Louis to. That suggests it's local conditions that are driving the rate upward."

Moving Forward

Dotson said in 2015, the department will focus on the small percentage of neighborhoods that account for the highest percentage of crime in the city. He also wants to engage social service providers and the courts.

"We can go in and do enforcement, but if it's a revolving door, and people come back and are in the same situation, with underemployment, a lack of educational opportunities, why do we think something is going to change?" Dotson said. He repeated his call for a  so-called "gun court" that would give those charged with gun crimes extensive supervision before and after trial. 

Dotson is supportive of a proposal from state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed for a minimum 10-year sentence for gun crimes. Jennifer Joyce, the circuit attorney, also wants stiffer penalties for gun crimes, though was not sure if 10 years was the right amount of time.

Both Joyce and Dotson said they are looking at successful programs in other cities. Joyce and Dotson both plan to travel to Kansas City to learn about its No Violence Alliance, and Joyce has taken a similar trip to learn about a similar project in Manhattan. 

In addition, Joyce said she's looking at ways to keep young men and women from carrying guns everywhere they go.

"It's a pretty small step from there to decide, let's use our guns," she said. "Let's either rob someone, or maybe I'm mad at my friend and we get into a fight. It's an altercation that 30 years ago may have been a fist fight, but now the guns come out and we have a shooting, we have a homicide."

About 50 percent of homicide cases are solved in the city. Both Dotson and Joyce said a lack of cooperation is a big hurdle.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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

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