Ronnie Robinson grew up along The Horseshoe, a U-shaped dead-end street on the edge of Wells-Goodfellow that descended into crime, then to abandonment, and is now several acres of trees and tall grass, purchased by MSD for flood control and a huge stormwater retention pond.
But in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, when he was in elementary and middle school, Robinson was able to walk to school, to the store, and to the neighbors, at night, without fear. The end, Robinson recalled, came a half-decade before he became a St. Louis cop in 1990.
Cocaine for the masses in the form of crack hit the North St. Louis streets in the mid-’80’s, and Robinson remembers how it shredded the social fabric within a few years, turning previously poor but safe neighborhoods into poor and extremely dangerous areas, teeming with crackheads, crack dealers, and small gangs shooting it out over drugs and profits.
Fast forward to 2019. Those neighborhoods are now abandoned. Buildings collapse into the streets. Children aren’t allowed outside after dark, if at all. The city’s population loss is now driven by thousands of African-Americans moving out each year, hoping to find safety and stability beyond the city limits in the county. And Lt. Col. Ronnie Robinson is the only black male among five Deputy Chiefs, one step below the Chief of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.
I first met him a decade ago, when he was a Captain, heading the Special Operations Unit. Dressed in a flat-brimmed leather baseball cap and a designer sweatshirt, he would drive up to a group of young men, talk to them, listen to their complaints about life in the ‘hood, and then tell them to turn their music down because it was bothering the older folks in the neighborhood. The music grew quieter. Part cop, priest, dad, and social worker, he knew these young men, knew that they could fall either way, and talked to them respectfully but firmly.
After running the SOU, he became commander of the North Patrol Division, headquartered on North Union and covering most of the North Side, where most of the City’s murders and violent crimes take place.
I asked Robinson to appear on The Jaco Report because I wanted to know how cops deal with a violent street culture in St. Louis, where almost all of the murder victims, and killers, are black.
“It’s a culture of dog eat dog, or survival of the fittest, the strongest,” he said, sadly. “It’s just a culture that’s very challenging, particularly for young black males.”
He added that in some cases it’s almost impossible to get information on crimes because of that culture, and because of fear.
“We do have a culture of retaliation in the communities that experience a lot of violence,” Robinson said.
Robinson said his career has been built on what he calls “holistic policing.” Knowing the streets, he noted, means knowing the difference between what works and what doesn’t.
“Some people believe that heavy enforcement is the way to go. But it’s not,” he said. “You have to have the ability to be proactive, the ability to communicate, do intervention, and also be able to enforce when it’s necessary.”
Robinson believes the epidemic of sociopathic gun violence in the city’s north side is as much a public health as a police concern, involving everything from PTSD to emotional instability brought on by the daily hammering of a pathological environment.
“Crime is a health issue, a mental health issue for inner cities,” he said. “And getting the health department involved and reaching out to the social workers and getting them involved is vital in our approaches to stopping violent crime.”
While Robinson thinks that approach is self-evident, it’s often not so clear to white officers assigned to the North Side. Many of them often refuse to get out of their patrol cars to interact with people, instead patrolling much like American troops looking for the Taliban in Kandahar. Robinson said that, in his days in charge of North Patrol, he sometimes had to talk to white officers who had barely ever interacted with black people.
“You’ve got the power to stop, detain, change a life, and even take a life without being questioned. Always let them know that first of all, you’re a policeman,” he would recall saying to white officers who seemed uncomfortable. “That doesn’t make you better than anybody else. Being a policeman makes you more responsible than everybody else in the community, responsible to do the right thing and represent righteousness for the individuals that you serve.”
And that, to Robinson, is a cop’s primary job: being responsible and representing righteousness.