NewsThe NorthSider

Poverty, racial divide contribute to high homicide rate

ST. LOUIS – In the past five years, St. Louis has averaged 192 homicides, according to St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief John Hayden. 

The numbers are staggering. 

There were 188 people killed in 2015, the highest it had been since 1995 when there were 204. In 2016, the murder rate remained outrageously high at 188 bodies counted. 

Then came 2017. A record 205 homicides were recorded in the city of St. Louis. The following year the numbers still hovered close to 200, recording 186. Then even closer last year with 194.

And it hasn’t stopped. 

There have already been 16 homicides in the city of St. Louis in this year as of Feb. 10. Although the majority of them did not happen in north St. Louis – which isn’t usually the case – the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s North Patrol recorded at least 583 homicides in just five years. 

The record year (2017) for St. Louis homicides amounted to 66.1 murders per 100,000 people. 

When homicides here reached a decade high in 2015, that was the year following the unrest and squaring off of blacks and police officers after the shooting death of Michael Brown.  

Poverty, which sometimes leads to the sale of illegal drugs and the resultant violence, remains a major root cause of crime, according to academics.

“High-poverty areas generally exhibit higher crime rates, especially violent crime,” Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution said in testifying before a House Ways and Means subcommittee on income security and family support in 2007. “In these neighborhoods, the social penalties for criminal activities may be lower, and reduced access to jobs and quality schools may lower the opportunity costs of crime.”

“Growing up in extreme poverty exerts powerful pressures toward crime,” researchers D. Stanley Eitzen and Janis E. Johnston explain in their 2016 book, “Inequality: Social Class and Its Consequences.”

They add, “The fact that those pressures are overcome by some individuals is testimony to human strength and resiliency.”

In St. Louis, more than 50 percent of blacks live below the poverty line, according to Data USA. 

White counterparts living in poverty in the city of St. Louis make up less than 20 percent of the white population.

The poverty percentage gap between blacks and whites is nearly as wide as that represented by the difference in the numbers of homicide here.   

Of the 194 homicides here last year, 175 of the victims were black and 15 were white. 

Studies in recent years have questioned whether “de-policing” has aided and abetted the spike in homicides, particularly among blacks. 

In a Pew Research Center report, “Police, Fatal Encounters and Ensuing Protests,” three in four officers say interactions between police and blacks in their community have grown more intense. Accordingly, about 72 percent say their colleagues are less willing now to stop and question people who seem suspicious or to use force, even when it appears appropriate. 

While two-thirds of police officers (67 percent) say the highly publicized deaths of blacks during encounters with the police are isolated, a majority of black officers say the incidents are evidence of a broader problem between police and blacks. Only 27 percent of whites held that view. 

The report also found that members of the public overwhelmingly hold the view that the incidents point to a broader racial problem. 

The firing of St. Louis police officers last year over racist Facebook posts, uncovered by the Plain View Project, also suggests broader issues in policing black residents. 

Officers in the Pew report also suggested that high-profile incidents such as Brown’s make policing harder. About 9 in 10 (89 percent) of white officers say policing is harder, and 81 percent of black officers say the same.  

Also, 93 percent of all officers say they are more concerned about their safety. As well, 75 percent of officers say they have become less willing to stop and question people who seem suspicious – in other words, many officers may be “de-policing.” 

Still, other factors may be contributing to the high number of homicides. There is only a 31 percent closure rate in St. Louis in homicide cases. That suggests that about 69 percent of the killers remain on the street. 

But that percentage may be much higher. The SLMPD acknowledges on its website that closing a case doesn’t mean it has been solved, or even that a suspect has been arrested. The website states: “A ‘cleared’ case is one where investigators have determined who is responsible for the crime and the person has either been arrested or arrest is not possible because the suspect is deceased, incarcerated elsewhere, etc.”

Sgt. Keith Barrett in the SLMPD’s public information office said in response to questions from The NorthSider that St. Louis officers were not “de-policing,” and that officers did not say their job was more difficult to do because of increased tension between police and black residents.

When asked whether officers were concerned about their safety because of that tension, Barrett replied, “No, the concern for safety is due to more firearms in the possession of violent criminals.”

Barrett attributed the low homicide solution rate largely to lack of witnesses willing to provide evidence.

“The difficulty in successful prosecution is mainly due to witness reluctance to come forward with information,” he said. “Most often it’s because of the fear of retaliation.”

The report did not include issues including racist attitudes among some law enforcement officers, such as those posted in the Plain View Project. 

In 2018, Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner identified several police officers deemed rogue and said she would not accept cases from them.

Though some say those cases point to a lower prosecution rate in some crimes (because of questionable police integrity), most of those case do not involve homicides.

Bill Beene Bill Beene was born and raised in north St. Louis. He has been a journalist for 12 years. He enjoys cooking and roller skating. He lives in the historic Ville neighborhood.

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