As a former St. Louis police officer, I have worked so many homicides scenes I can only remember the most heinous crimes: the child murders, the double homicides, the horrific mutilation.
St. Louis has ranked near the top of homicide charts for the last decade. During my stint as an officer, it seemed as if we tried everything: innovative programs from the FBI, exotic community engagement initiatives, tough-on-crime philosophy. Nothing worked.
Patterns of high homicides just don’t occur. They are a matter of habitual behavior enhanced by four key factors: space and proximity, manpower shortages, clearance rate, and poverty. These important factors provide the structural foundation to a city plagued with homicides.
Space and proximity. In 1962 James Calhoun conducted a social experiment called “rat city.” Calhoun conducted limited resource and overpopulation experiments with rats. The experimental result revealed the dangerous truths about pathological overcrowding and limited resources. The effects of overcrowding followed by limited resources produced a range of deviant behaviors: overly aggressive males, hypersexual activity, parental neglect and emotional withdrawal.
Aggressive male rats began to form gangs to attack infants, elderly and female rats. The female population suffered from immense increased birth mortality. Infants were often wounded, sexually attacked and mostly forgotten. Ultimately the rats began to devour one another in mass cannibalism. In his report “Population Density and Social Pathology,” Calhoun compared his findings to violent criminal activity within cities.
Manpower shortages. Securing a homicide scene absorbs an enormous amount of manpower and time. The responding officers must first contact homicide detectives and supervisors to advise their findings. The responding officers must then tape off the scene in order to preserve evidence, contact evidence technique officers to collect evidence, and document a participation log. A team of at least 10 officers is taken off the streets for an average of two hours. When manpower shortages dictate police department decision-making, crime becomes a priority.
Clearance rate. The homicide clearance rate is the measurement used by police departments to determine the rate of homicides solved with a viable suspect versus cases that are never solved. Typically, cities overrun by homicides have low clearance rates. When the community cannot trust the police department to solve crimes and protect them from violence, a pseudo law emerges that promotes shadow economies and distrust for the government: “snitches get stiches.”
I remember investigating a homicide in the middle of a gang war. I was speaking with a trusted member of the community. I posed the question, “Who killed the victim?” to which she responded, “Everyone knows the identity of the killer.” I responded, “So who was it?” She slowly shock her head and muttered, “I can’t tell you.”
Poverty. During the War on Crime initiatives in the 1990s, cites throughout the United States began to increase punishment. New York’s stop and frisk experiment allegedly reduced a high homicide rate by targeting young minority drug dealers who usually carried weapons. Cities have long partnered with the federal government to lock up offenders longer while denying any chance of parole. This approach suggests that if we merely arrest all of the poor people who reside in conditions of pathological overcrowding and limited resources, we will decrease the homicide problem.
However, this approach would open the door to much bigger problems. It is important that legislators and police departments alike address the root of the real problem: poverty. Historically, an economic influx of resources, livable-wage jobs, and sustainable living conditions have successfully reduced all manners of crime.
Luther O. Tyus is a graduate research assistant in the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, as well as an eight-year veteran of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and a certified POST police instructor.