COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — State and federal governments announced on Thursday steps aimed at reining in violent crime in St. Louis, prompting Black leaders to question why police reform isn’t part of the conversation.
Fifty Department of Homeland Security agents will be sent to St. Louis under Operation Legend — a federal anti-crime program launched last month in several cities — to assist city police in high-crime areas, with a special focus on gangs, U.S. Attorney Jeff Jensen said.
Calling the violence in St. Louis “absolutely intolerable,” Jensen drew a distinction between Operation Legend and President Donald Trump’s dispatching of federal agents to address unrest in Portland, Ore.
“It’s not riot police,” Jensen said at a news conference. “It’s not officers wearing fatigues.”
Additional help will come from the Missouri State Highway Patrol, and the Missouri Attorney General’s office will provide additional prosecutors, Jensen said.
Missouri NAACP President Rod Chapel raised concern that the push to fight crime would focus more on people of color than on police misconduct.
“I think about all the other murders that have occurred with people being shot in the back by law enforcement,” he said. “Are those cases being investigated by an Operation Legend? Or is it only other people, who in our view tend to be citizens of color, that are the targets of their operations?”
Meanwhile, state senators in special session debated a crime bill proposed by Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, to address violence in St. Louis and other cities. But Black lawmakers threatened a filibuster, criticizing Parson for prioritizing tough-on-crime policies instead of abolishing systemic racism and police brutality.
“We’re here talking about these things right now, but we’re not dealing with the reform that is necessary in the police department,” Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, said on the Senate floor.
Protesters chanting “criminal justice reform, not rhetoric” briefly interrupted the debate.Operation Legend is named for 4-year-old LeGend Taliferro of Kansas City, Mo., who was fatally shot while sleeping in his home in June. The program began in Kansas City, and also includes Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Albuquerque, N.M., and Memphis, Tenn.
Trump has made law and order the centerpiece of his reelection bid. He has described Democrat-led cities as out of control and blamed the “radical left” for rising violence, though criminal justice experts say it defies easy explanation.
Mayor Lyda Krewson, a Democrat, said she was “very happy to have the additional 50 officers to work collaboratively and cooperatively with the St. Louis Police Department.”
Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner said via Twitter: ‘We welcome any partnership with the U.S. Attorney that will strengthen our efforts to make the City of St. Louis safer and more just. This includes collaboration with my office to prosecute individual drivers of crime.”
But she added, “I am, however, concerned about bringing more federal agents to the City of St. Louis given their recent behavior in Portland, Oregon, where officers stopped people without probable cause and interrupted peaceful protesters without warning. My office will hold law enforcement agencies accountable if they violate the rights of people who live in our community.”
In announcing the special session, Parson — a former sheriff — rebuffed calls to consider the sort of police reforms that have been proposed after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, saying addressing the violence had to take priority.
“We’ve got a serious problem in this state with the homicide rate, and we’ve got to deal with it,” Parson said. “No one agency is going to be able to fix this.”
The violence in St. Louis over the past couple of months has been staggering.
As of June 1, St. Louis had recorded 70 killings for 2020 — the exact same year-to-date total as in 2019. St. Louis had 32 killings in June and a startling 53 in July. As of Thursday, St. Louis has seen 158 homicides — about 40 more than this time last year.
Many experts believe the coronavirus pandemic has played a role, causing historic unemployment that has hit hardest in economically disadvantaged areas that also tend to have the highest crime rates.
University of Missouri-St. Louis Criminologist Richard Rosenfeld said social distancing requirements had curtailed police activities such as foot patrols that help thwart crime before it happens. Meanwhile, the widespread protests fed mistrust of police, meaning people are less likely to report crimes and more likely to take matters into their own hands.
“My current view is it’s some combination of the impact on the response to COVID-19 on police activity, and even greater, community alienation from the police,” Rosenfeld said.
MetroSTL.com staff contributed to this report.