DOWNTOWN – St. Louis’ police commissioner says drugs, tight-lipped witnesses and a city regulation he claims limits the number of new officers he can hire are all contributing factors to the latest spike in gun violence.
John Hayden released a video on the police department’s YouTube channel and social media outlets Wednesday morning.
In his remarks, recorded a day earlier, Hayden points to 19 shootings that left seven dead and eleven others injured over the previous four days as the reason for his unannounced address.
The video, which was just short of seven minutes long and contained a number of edits, was Hayden’s first detailed statement on the latest rash of gun violence.
First and foremost, he singles out drugs, which he says in some form or fashion are responsible for at least half of the city’s homicides. Eighty-nine people have been slain in the city in 2019 so far, about a 7 percent increase over the same time last year. Hayden says the number of drug-related deaths is even more significant when you add in the number of confirmed drug overdoses.
“If you add up our drug-related homicides and our overdose deaths, you have close to 150 drug-related deaths so far in our city this year,” he said.
Problem one, according to Hayden, is the refusal of witnesses to talk to officers as police attempt to investigate the gun-related injuries and deaths.
“It certainly seems that in recent weeks on certain days we have gone from one shooting scene to the next. Our biggest challenge is always and remains to be a lack of witness participation. I always remind everyone that reporting through Crimestoppers is a way to pass on valuable information anonymously and can often be rewarded.”
He drove home the point about witnesses when he pointed to the cases of three toddlers who were shot in the last month.
“In each case we have not gotten full cooperation from every single adult or teen in and around the toddlers when the shooting incidents have occurred.” He continued, somewhat sarcastically, “We do know that toddlers are not involved in drug activity and are not in a personal dispute with anyone.”
In addressing the department’s efforts to solve the problem, Hayden stepped directly into the heated political debate over whether city employees, including police officers, should be required to live within the city limits of St. Louis.
Hayden said that, since he took office in early 2018, attrition had outpaced academy graduations and that the department was currently 148 officers below the number they were supposed to have on the street. That’s an 11 percent shortage.
That also does not include the 59 officers, most of whom are still with the department, on the circuit attorney’s exclusion list, which hampers those officers’ ability to bring charges against criminals. Hayden did not mention that situation, nor the impact it is having on staffing.
He did say, flatly, that the residency requirement had to go.
“We need a much larger applicant pool in short order,” he said, “which I believe will come only by way of the repeal of the residency requirement.”
As far as what is being done to solve the problem, Hayden said the areas he dubbed crime reduction zones had been increased from one, in north St. Louis, to three. Areas in downtown and the Dutchtown/Gravois Park area have been added. Hayden did not say why downtown was on the list, considering it is generally a lower-crime portion of the city.
Hayden said much of the focus in these areas was a crackdown on “open air” drug sales, which sometimes lead to disputes and shootings.
He said a simple increase in visibility of officers on the streets was also being implemented.
“We have beefed up our mobile reserve unit to focus on crime reduction zones. Each district has implemented a strategic foot beat and patrol plan to maximize visibility, and I have been conducting mobile office visits weekly in the most challenging neighborhoods.”
In addition to those measures, Hayden pointed to a variety of youth intervention programs the department actively supported.
As for solving the homicides that have already happened, Hayden said suspects had either been arrested or identified in 40 of the 89 homicides in 2019. That leaves more than half of the cases unsolved and an significant number of killers still on the street.