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Edwards defends himself against charges of insensitivity

CITY HALL – St. Louis Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards defended himself this week against protesters who claimed he had made insensitive statements about the 13 children who were victims of gun violence this summer.

The statements on radio station KWMU prompted a group of 13 organizations to send a letter asking Mayor Lyda Krewson to condemn the remarks and the Board of Aldermen to censure him.

“It is important that our children do not engage in risky behaviors,” Edwards said in an Oct. 3 St. Louis on the Air program mostly spent talking about the St. Louis Police Cadet Program. “When they engage in criminal behaviors, unfortunately we end up with 13 children dead. And so, while I don’t want to be callous, I do want to make it very, very clear that many of the kids that died this summer were very sophisticated.”

The letter by the 13 organizations said that kind of demonization of crime was shocking and unacceptable and “builds on racist, dehumanizing tropes about black children and distracts from the public policies that continue to deepen poverty and despair instead of investing resources to create safety and opportunity.”

But Edwards defended himself in a meeting of the Board of Aldermen’s Public Safety Committee on Thursday.

He said it was wrong to blame victims. But he also said it was important to discuss certain facts, namely, that some of the children ages 10-16 had been involved in illegal or wrong activity. None of those under 10 was at fault. But in some cases adults and teens around them were targets.

“The purpose here is not to demonize anyone. The facts are the facts,” Edwards said. 

Edwards said two of the older children were believed to have committed suicide. A 15-year-old was found dead in the early morning with an automatic weapon, an extended ammunition magazine and a large quantity of drugs. 

A 16-year-old who was found dead was on the police carjacking offenders list. That youth apparently was caught in a crossfire between two 16-year-olds. And a 15-year-old allegedly had been rifling through a vehicle early in the morning when he died.

Edwards also said that 15 homicide victims this year had previously been arrested for homicide. 

Twenty-third Ward Alderman Joe Vaccaro, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said Edwards did a good job stating his case. 

“He just clarified that he was not talking about the younger kids,” Vacarro said. “What he was talking about was the older kids. The way he explained it was 15- or 16-year-old kids were involved in drug activity, but in no way was he implying that the younger kids were involved in drug activity,” Vaccaro said. 

“What he was pointing out was just what he felt was somewhat of a fact,” Vaccaro said.

Twenty-Second Ward Alderman Jeffrey Boyd said he thought Edwards’ words had been taken out of context. 

“If you know more information than the public, and you know that some of those young people put themselves in harm’s way, that’s a fair statement to make,” Boyd said. “People frustrate me when they do not want to know the truth about certain things.”

First Ward Alderwoman Sharon Tyus, who has long known Edwards, questioned how he had made the original statement.

“I think that he needs to think very carefully about what he says, because a lot of people took it that he said that it was the kids’ fault that he got killed, and I think that it could be extrapolated from that,” Tyus said.

“I don’t think he believes that. I do know that he’s a very old-time person. He believes in the rules,” Tyus said. “I don’t know him to be a person who believes that black kids should be killed.”

Those groups that signed the letter were Action St. Louis, ACLU of Missouri, Arch City Defenders, The Bail Project, Close the Workhouse Campaign, the Deaconess Foundation, Forward Through Ferguson, Jobs With Justice, Metropolitan Congregations United, Organization for Black Struggle, SEIU Healthcare, WePower and the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression. 

“Edwards’ words are as painful as they are dangerous,” the letter said. “In moments such as this, silence is complicity. These are mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, siblings and grandparents still mourning the sudden loss of their beloved children. They do not deserve to have their memories so disrespected by a public official whose job is to serve all of us.” 

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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