When the final numbers showed that St. Louis had reduced its murders last year while other big cities were hitting records, city officials said their success was due to smart use of crime data and effective anti-violence programs.
But over the past two years, St. Louis has quietly lowered its murder count in another way: classifying more than three dozen killings as what are termed justifiable homicides, sometimes in apparent violation of FBI guidelines for reporting crimes, a ProPublica/APM Reports investigation found.
And for a handful of slayings, the department has simply omitted the cases from its annual totals.
From 2010 through 2019, St. Louis police classified an average of six killings a year by private citizens as justifiable homicides, meaning incidents in which someone killed another person who was committing a serious criminal offense. Those cases were not counted in the city’s official murder tally.
In 2020, they counted at least 17 that way. In 2021, the number jumped to at least 22. Had just a handful of those justifiable homicides been classified as murders, St. Louis might have set its all-time murder record in 2020 and had its second highest annual total in 27 years in 2021 — changes that might have altered the conversation about the city’s success in reducing violent crime.
The news organizations found that over the two years, detectives sought murder charges in at least five cases labeled as justified. Prosecutors declined to file charges in four of them; in the fifth, prosecutors later charged a suspect with murder, but the case was still counted in police statistics as a justifiable homicide. FBI guidelines say police must count murders based on results from their investigation, regardless of a prosecutor’s action.
The news organizations’ examination of crime statistics doesn’t alter the overall picture of the city’s decline in murder last year — from what the department reported as 263 in 2020 to 198 last year, a drop of nearly 25%. But it adds important context to that picture, showing the city’s murder count is becoming less reliable as a measure of the number of lives that ended in violence.
In cities that have struggled to contain violent crime, as St. Louis has, the murder count is a rolling report card that is used to measure the success or failure of elected leaders and the police department.
The murder tally has long been the first item of business at the department’s Monday morning media briefing, which catalogs weekend violence. So far this year, the reduction in homicides has continued. But the rise in slayings classified as justifiable has not received much attention from the public.
When the murder count goes up, companies talk about leaving the city, residents consider moving away and local politicians debate new anti-crime measures. Officials in St. Louis even considered using surveillance aircraft to battle a reported rise in street violence. When the murder count goes down, officials cite it as an example of their sound leadership.
Two years ago, the issue of the city’s crime rate became especially urgent, with the metro area’s largest public company, the health care company Centene, getting involved. In November 2020, according to records, Jim Brown, a consultant to then-Mayor Lyda Krewson, suggested in an email to a consultant — who was working for Centene to evaluate the police department — that St. Louis could better manage the issue by combining its data with the much larger suburban St. Louis County.
If the city and county reported their crime data together, Brown wrote, “our sky high murder rates and other crimes statistics would come down considerably.”
Police compile and analyze data to track crime trends and guide crime-fighting strategies, so it’s imperative they be accurate and carry the same meaning from year to year, said Victor St. John, an assistant professor of criminology at Saint Louis University. When those statistics are used as a political measure, he said, “you can switch up the definitions, which will change what the trends look like and can confuse, intentionally or unintentionally, anyone looking at changes in the numbers.”
Jane Dueker, the lawyer and lobbyist for the St. Louis Police Officers Association, the union that represents rank-and-file officers, said she believed political pressure played a role in how the city counted murders.
“When you have such a high jump in justifiable homicide,” she said, “that’s definitely a red flag.”
Dan Isom, the city’s interim public safety director, disagreed, calling Dueker’s charge that politics colors how the city compiles crime data “yet another baseless accusation against the Police Department not based in reality.”
The investigation is based in part on 12 years of data provided by the department through a public records request. Some of the killings clearly appeared to be justified, based on the evidence laid out in police reports. And the department has also sometimes counted murders even in cases where prosecutors declined to press charges.
The department told APM Reports and ProPublica that its own data on how individual cases were classified might not be accurate, but it repeatedly failed to respond to requests to correct inaccuracies. It said it considers a broad range of evidence before making a decision and consults prosecutors, but refused to discuss specific cases.
“While the Circuit Attorney’s Office has the final say in the decision to prosecute, our department makes the final determination as to whether an incident is classified as criminal or justifiable homicide,” police spokesperson Evita Caldwell said in a statement. “This decision is ultimately made by the investigator, the supervisor, the commander of the Homicide Division, as well as the Commander of the Bureau of Investigative Services.”
Through a spokesperson, the office of St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner declined to comment. Prosecutors are independent from the police department and not involved in deciding how cases are classified for crime statistics.
A shifting definition of murder
FBI crime reporting standards instruct police departments to count as a murder any death that results from a fight, argument, quarrel, assault or commission of a crime. The FBI defines a justifiable homicide more narrowly: a situation where an officer on duty kills a perpetrator of a serious crime or when a private citizen kills a perpetrator during the commission of a serious crime.
An example is when a homeowner fatally shoots someone who has broken into their home.
It’s difficult to tell if St. Louis is an outlier in reporting justifiable homicide by private citizens. Nationally, it is rare for police departments to count such cases: Just 405 total were reported to the FBI in 2020, compared with more than 17,000 murders the same year, the most recent year for which data was available.
While cities such as Indianapolis and Phoenix have recorded numbers of justifiable homicides by private citizens that are comparable to St. Louis’ numbers, police in Chicago, Kansas City and Baltimore did not report any in 2021. In Kansas City, which saw its second-highest murder total last year, police said they classify only officer-involved shootings as justifiable.
“That’s the whole idea behind uniform crime reporting, it’s supposed to be the same for everybody, and isn’t, especially with regard to this kind of subtle distinction” of determining who is at fault in each case, said Gary Kleck, a professor emeritus at Florida State University, who has studied justifiable homicide.
St. Louis Chief of Police John Hayden Jr. acknowledged the rise in justifiable homicides in a January interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, attributing the rise to changes in Missouri law. Those changes, he said, provided more latitude for people who carry weapons and use them in what they say is self-defense than a change in criteria by the department.
“The analysis of whether or not something is justified, that has not changed,” Hayden said. But when someone claims they acted in self-defense, he said, “I would say that makes the analysis very challenging.”
FBI guidelines advise against classifying a killing as justifiable based solely on a suspect’s claim they acted in self-defense.
“A claim of self-defense alone is not sufficient; there must be corroborating evidence to substantiate the claim,” an official with the FBI’s Global Law Enforcement Support Section said in a statement. “The agency must determine if there is corroborating evidence to classify the incident as a justifiable homicide. The investigation must determine the degree of responsibility of the participants.”
The investigation also found St. Louis police put in place procedures to classify some killings as justifiable even when detectives believe the killing was unjustified but prosecutors decline to bring charges because they believe a suspect could reasonably claim self-defense.
A memo from the homicide commander to detectives says detectives should review such cases to decide if they will be counted as murders.
“The FBI is very clear that it doesn’t matter what the prosecutors think,” said Jacob Kaplan, a Princeton University criminologist and the chief data scientist at Research on Policing Reform and Accountability. “These are police statistics. If they think it’s a murder, then it’s a murder. Even if the prosecutor later says this isn’t a murder, like a prosecutor drops the charges, that doesn’t matter.”
Dueker, the police union lawyer, said detectives believe the practice undermines their work and the integrity of crime data.
A valuable life
In October 2020, St. Louis police responded to a report of a car crash and found Staveion Durham shot in the chest. Police said that they were told that Durham and others in the car had shot at each other.
Three months after the incident, prosecutors charged one of the men in the crash, Marlon Hampton, with second-degree murder and other charges.
Dueker pointed out the contradiction between the department’s classification of the killing as justifiable and the murder charge against Hampton. She said if she were Hampton’s attorney, the department’s classification of the homicide as justifiable “would be Exhibit A.” Hampton’s attorney, Tyson Cole, said he could not comment on the case except that he was aware the police had classified the death as a justifiable homicide.
In another case in which detectives sought murder charges but police classified the killing as justifiable, Christopher Alexander was shot to death on March 8, 2020, by Jamal Johnson.
Alexander’s sister Sierra Alexander said in an interview that before the shooting, which she witnessed, her brother had taken drugs and was acting aggressively, choking one of her friends before a group of friends stopped him.
The medical examiner’s investigator said Alexander also pistol-whipped a man during the incident. A video of the incident from a surveillance camera showed that with a gun in his hand, Alexander lunged at and shoved another man, Jamal Johnson, who also had a gun, video shows. Johnson then shot Alexander several times.
Sierra Alexander said a detective told her he believed the case was murder. Police sought to charge Johnson with murder and other charges, but prosecutors took the case to a grand jury, which indicted Johnson for gun possession but not murder. Johnson pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years probation.
Johnson’s lawyer, Kristi Flint, said Johnson was well within his rights to shoot Alexander and that police were wrong to seek murder charges against him.
“When the detective arrested Mr. Johnson, he knew that my client had acted in self-defense,” Flint said. “Regardless of the facts, my client will now have an arrest for murder on his record.”
Precious Cunningham’s death, likewise, was not classified as a murder. She was driving two teens and two toddlers one afternoon in March 2020 when she got caught between two cars engaged in a gun battle.
Cunningham wasn’t shot, but she crashed, was ejected from the car and was killed. St. Louis police commanders said the case highlighted the dangerous reality of life in St. Louis: Gunfights can break out at any time and motorists should take extra precautions in the city. No one has been charged in the case.
“I don’t understand why she’s not even listed,” said Cunningham’s cousin, Tikisha Johnson. “Her life was just as valuable as anybody else’s on that list.”
The department has also made a change to how it counts some murders — which has led to several cases being left out of the totals that might have been counted in past years. In many cases when a victim was assaulted in one year and died in a subsequent year, the department historically counted the murder in the year of death. In 2018, for example, the police counted the murder of a store owner who died after having been shot more than two years before.
But after switching at the end of 2020 to the FBI’s next-generation reporting system, which lets departments amend crime data after it’s been reported, St. Louis police said they would now count it in the year of the initial incident, not when the victim died. That means the city’s murder total is not a final count when the mayor announces it at year’s end. Since the city said it had 195 murders in 2021, the tally has grown by three people who died this year from wounds suffered in shootings last year.
But St. Louis police are not amending years before 2021. As a result, at least nine murder victims are not counted in any year. Among them is 17-year-old Cameron Edwards, who was wounded in a shooting in November 2020 and died from his injuries in December 2021, according to records.
The image of a city
Beyond the question of how killings are counted lies another question: Do these judgment calls about how to classify a killing influence the accuracy of a figure that people use to measure a city’s level of violence?
The fatal shooting of Jason Dudley on Jan. 2, 2020, goes to the heart of that question. The day after Jeffrey Brown Jr.’s car was stolen, Brown found it parked near his mother’s home. When he contacted the police, they told him to drive it home with a spare key and to secure it with an anti-theft device. But because he believed the thief also had gotten his mother’s house key when he stole the car, Brown decided to wait to confront anyone who came back for the car.
That was Dudley, who according to his family had a history of drug abuse. Brown told police he saw Dudley use the car key to open the driver’s door, dashed over to confront him, then pulled him out of the car and held him at gunpoint.
Brown, according to a video of the interrogation the Dudley family provided, told police that Dudley said to him several times, “You don’t have to do this.”
He said Dudley repeatedly tried to escape. Brown, according to the interrogation video, even demonstrated for a detective how he held the gun to Dudley’s back and ordered him to put his hands on the car. But Dudley turned and tried to wrestle away the gun.
Brown told police that he feared “it was him or me.” He said he had his finger on the trigger and the gun “went off.” Dudley collapsed on the corner with a gunshot wound to the head.
Dudley’s family insisted the killing was murder. They said Brown had no evidence that Dudley had stolen the car, had no legal right to hold him and could have called the police. Brown, they said, had gotten back his car. Under the circumstances, the family said, Dudley had as much right to defend himself as Brown. Brown did not respond to messages left with both of his parents. The detective in the case also did not respond to a request for comment.
Peter Joy, a professor at Washington University School of Law, said that if Dudley had gotten the upper hand, taken the gun and killed Brown, he also would have had a strong argument that he had a right to stand his ground, as Missouri law provides. Prosecutors might have declined to charge him with murder as well.
“What strikes me is how bad the ‘stand your ground’ law is, but also how reluctant people in law enforcement and prosecutors are to pursue cases that probably should be pursued but where it’s going to be difficult to prove, and where they are basically deferring to the fact that it’s going to be difficult so they just decide not to bring the case,” said Joy, an expert in legal ethics and criminal justice.
St. John, the criminologist at Saint Louis University, said there were “a lot of things wrong here.” How many cases like these, he wondered, were being included in the increasing numbers of justifiable homicides? “I don’t know if that’s justifiable in any way, and those numbers hide it.”
The detective, according to a video of Brown’s interrogation that Dudley’s family obtained, told Brown the homicide unit was busy. Dudley was the seventh homicide in two days. He said he would discuss the case with a prosecutor but “I don’t think you have anything to worry about, OK?”
Months after the killing, the police classified the death as a justifiable homicide.
This article by Jeremy Kohler and Tom Scheck is a collaboration between ProPublica and APM Reports. It is published here through a Creative Commons license.