KINGSWAY WEST – Only days ago, a church full of grieving residents remembered loved ones who were among last year’s near-record 194 homicide victims. Yet 2020 has already seen eight lives lost to gun violence, making national headlines again.
At the annual heart-wrenching candlelight service Tuesday, Dec. 31, at Williams Temple Church of God in Christ at 1500 Union Blvd., where members were on day 30 of a 40-day fast against homicides, St. Louis police Chief John Hayden admittedly projected more homicides to come.
“It is difficult to stand here before you, knowing that in many instances, the perpetrators who snuffed out the lives of your loved ones have yet to have been brought to justice,” Hayden lamented. “I wish that I could promise you that they will, one day soon, but I cannot make that promise with any degree of certainty.”
As he began to speak, Hayden and other officers in attendance stood to offer their condolences to sorrowing families.
“In fact, I wish that I could tell you that 2020 will be a year our homicide rate will drop significantly and therefore this audience will be much smaller this time next year, but I can’t make that promise either,” he acknowledged, getting choked up before he was done addressing the people in the pews.
No one was killed in the city on New Year’s Eve, like in 2018, when the total number of homicides hit 186 for the year.
However, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, who was on his way to the candlelight service, had to instead go to the scene of an officer-involved shooting, according to Jeanette Culpepper, founder of FASS (Families Advocating Safe Streets). The confrontation left a fleeing suspect, alleged to have been shoplifting, dead on the parking lot of Chesterfield Outlet Mall.
Culpepper takes all violent crimes – city and county – into account, including police officers killed in the line of duty as well as officer-involved shootings.
Regarding the rash of homicides already this year, she said it wasn’t necessarily an indicator of a high year-end tally to come. She remains optimistic, even though she said her son, Curtis Johnson, was one of five killed in one day in 1991.
“It might start off bad, but it could get better,” said Culpepper, adding that it was “all in God’s hands.”
Many of the speakers at the candlelight service called on a higher power, and some quoted scripture. Among them were Hayden, Board of Alderman President Lewis Reed, License Collector Mavis Thompson and City Treasurer Tishaura Jones.
Reed, who teared up while talking about his own older brother who was killed in 1982, said it would take a movement like that of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington and Culpepper’s FASS.
Thompson advocated coming together as one big family.
Mayor Lyda Krewson pledged to do more.
“I know that we’re all busy, but I pledge to take more time to work with my family, my partners in the city, the police department, elected officials and the community to come together to take action for a more peaceful St. Louis,” she said.
For Jones, the action is fighting poverty. Her office started the College Kids program, which opened bank accounts for more than 16,000 children with a total of $1.1 million saved for higher education.
Her office loads an account with $50 for every child entering kindergarten in St. Louis Public Schools. She said it not only addressed poverty – which she noted is one of the root causes of crime – but it gave them hope by lifting their aspirations and expectations.
Last year, however, three of those new accounts were closed because of fatal gun violence. They were the bank accounts of 10-year-old Nyla Banks; 8-year-old Jurnee Thompson; and 7-year-old Xavier Usanga.
A suspect was charged in Xavier’s death, but killers in the two other cases remain at large.
City Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards, speaking at the candlelight service, told the grieving families and friends that he was committed to working hard to seek justice on their behalf.
“I demand and encourage our police department and other law enforcement departments to stay focused on past and current homicide investigations,” Edwards said, offering his condolences and commitment to bring closure to the families.
As for lowering the number of homicides, St. Louis will implement this spring a program called Cure Violence, which aims to stop the gun violence epidemic the way it would control a disease.
Another program that started late last year is a collaboration between St. Louis Integrated Health Network and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. The two entities attack violence from a social perspective by connecting victims with services.
“Hurt people, hurt people,” maintains criminal justice reform-minded City Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner, who works with Sankofa, a social edification nonprofit for at-risk youths.
Better Family Life has a de-escalation program that aims to squash disputes between individuals.
Hayden said that along with retaliation, 50 percent of the homicides here were because of illegal drugs and related behaviors. Personal disputes are the cause of 35 percent, and domestic violence accounts for 15 percent.
The chief also pointed out an alarming statistic far higher than being killed with a gun: illegal drug overdose deaths.
According to Hayden, there were 302 overdose deaths in the city of St. Louis – 108 more than the total number of homicides, though it didn’t make the national headlines.
At the candlelight service, Bishop Lawrence M. Wooten of Williams Temple Church in God and Christ summed up the plight: “Our land needs to be healed. “