Jaco: Crime, revenge and death in the streets

In the last decade and a half, the rate of deaths from violent crimes in St. Louis has risen dramatically, and then leveled off, according to a new study. But while statistics show that the rate of people killed in armed robberies and burglaries has increased, little research has been done into revenge killings, which may be on the rise due to people taking the law into their own hands.

The study on deaths during violent crimes, from University of Missouri-St. Louis criminology professor Janet Lauritsen, shows that between 2004 and 2016, the percentage of St. Louis homicides involving a gun rose to 94 percent from 78 percent, and that 60 percent of armed robberies and assaults in the city involved a firearm, up from 43 percent in 2004.

Lauritsen, though, isn’t quite sure what those figures mean.

In an email talking about her findings, Lauritsen wrote, “This can increase because: 1) a greater proportion of robberies and aggravated assaults are committed with a firearm and victims are more likely to be shot; 2) a greater proportion of violent incidents involve victims and offenders who are involved in illegal activities (such as robberies of drug dealers) who are more likely to shoot one another; or 3) because the number of bullets fired or the caliber of bullets fired during violent incidents have increased, thus involving more bystander victims or more serious bodily harm resulting in death.”

And the uncertainty — whether the deaths are due to more guns, more gunslingers predisposed to shoot, or heavier weapons with a greater rate of fire — means the study doesn’t have any suggestions as to what police should do about it.

“Until we determine how much the increase in lethality is due to each of these possibilities,” Lauritsen wrote, “it is very difficult to say much about what the policy response should be.”

Oddly, about the same time Missouri passed some of the loosest gun laws in the nation, in January 2017, the rate of deadly violence leveled off — still higher than 15 years ago, but the rate of increase slowed. But whether that’s due to increased police enforcement or fewer deadly criminals because of the spiraling death rate, the study can’t say.

But a specific type of murder — the revenge killing — has generated few examinations of its causes and potential cures, even though revenge is an increasingly common motive for violence in the streets of St. Louis and other cities.

Take the one week last month when four children were shot and killed in St. Louis, or last Thursday, when a 12-year-old girl was shot in the head on Era Avenue in the Walnut Park West neighborhood. Those children were all caught in the crossfire of bullets intended for adults, most fired for revenge.

An example of what seems to be a mass homicide happened last Saturday in the 1900 block of Chambers Road in north St. Louis County. Five adults were found fatally shot inside an apartment. The father of one of the victims said that drugs were probably involved and that the killings may have resulted from some sort of fight.

But whether it was anger over drug money, drugs themselves, or something else, revenge for some grievance, real or imagined, seemed to be the motive. In many cases, the revenge involves illegal activity.

Yale University sociologist Elijah Anderson pointed out 25 years ago in his groundbreaking essay and subsequent book “The Code of the Streets” that many if not most revenge murders involve both a perceived insult and a festering sense of grievance. Another factor, Anderson noted, is a disconnect between poor African-American communities and the police, where residents feel more confident about taking the law into their own hands than they do in contacting law enforcement.

Anderson wrote that revenge killings result from the despair of being black and low-income in America, and from a twisted but ingrained “code of honor” that demands retaliation for insults, either perceived or actual. But the main driver, he noted, is the profound sense of alienation from norms of mainstream middle-class society, including contacting the police.

“The police are most often seen as representing the dominant white society and not caring to the protect inner-city residents,” Anderson wrote. “When called, they may not respond, which is one reason many residents feel they must be prepared to take extraordinary measures to protect themselves and their loved ones.”

“The person who is believed capable of ‘taking care of himself’ is accorded a certain deference,” Anderson continued. “That translates into a sense of physical and psychological control.”

Revenge, and the control that comes from it, has a price tallied in dead children and yards of police tape wrapping the scene of a mass homicide.

Charles Jaco

Charles Jaco is a journalist and author. He has worked for NBC News, CNN, KMOX, KTRS, and Fox 2. He is best known for his coverage of the first Gulf War, and for his "legitimate rape" interview with Senate candidate Todd Akin. He is the winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the author of four books.

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