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Murder by the numbers

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Posted: Thursday, January 27, 2011 12:05 am | Updated: 1:29 pm, Thu Jan 27, 2011.

When the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department released crime statistics for 2010 last week, there were surprises for a community that often feels embattled.

The category that includes the worst crimes – homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, theft – saw a 9.2 percent decrease compared to 2009.

In a year that seemed drenched in the blood of murder victims, there was exactly one more homicide – 144 – than the year before, and that was 23 homicides fewer than in 2008.

Homicide in the city in 2010 was down a staggering 123 murders from the bloodiest year on modern record, 1993, when 267 people were murdered in the city of St. Louis.

However, Police Chief Daniel Isom understands the public perception that there was a violent crime wave in 2010.

“The shooting outside the funeral home certainly grasped the attention, not only of the city, but nationally,” Isom told The American, in a long, searching interview that will be reported in two parts.

“Then there was the incident on Christmas day, where two young people were murdered. Those types of incidents give people the impression, and rightly so, that things are out of control.”

Doing the math on the number of homicides, even when the number is stable from last year and far down from the bloody early ‘90s, helps Isom to understand public perception.

“The reality is, when you have 143 or 144 homicides in a city, then it’s in the public consciousness every two and a half days, if you average it out,” Isom said.

“You are always hearing about some kind of homicide. It never goes out of consciousness. Even though 2010 was basically the same as 2009 and 23 less homicides than 2008, people still have the sense there is way too much violence. And I agree with them.”

Isom was surprised and disappointed at the number of homicides, given that for much of the year the number seemed to be trending downward.

“We have been working very hard, trying to target the same people who commit the majority of the crimes, the repeat offenders, and we had a measure of success last year. In 2008 we had 167 homicides. In 2009 that went down to 143 homicides,” Isom said.

“We were hoping that we were starting to make headway in reducing the number of homicides. Throughout the year, it looked like the number would fall by 20 or so in 2010. Of course, November was a really terrible month, and we ended up right on track with where we were last year.”

“April is the cruelest month,” St. Louis native T.S. Eliot wrote in his classic modern poem “The Waste Land.” On the streets of his home city, that is not the case.

As Isom noted, November 2010 was “a really terrible month” with 26 homicides, on average nearly one a day. Next bloodiest in 2010 was the month of January, with 16 homicides. Third was December with 15.

“A lot of stress comes with the holiday season. We do have a materialistic society, and pressure comes in the winter months,” Isom said.

“We see a spike in robberies that could be associated with this, and spikes in violence might have a psychological component. There is a lot more depression in the winter months than in summer. There is less time in the day, less daylight, and this has a psychological effect.”

Averaging the statistics over a five-year cycle, the bloodiest months in St. Louis are actually September (14.2), May (14) and June (14).

“You actually find more violence in the spring and fall. There is some suggestion this has to do with the school cycle,” Isom said.

“April and May is when kids are about to get out of school, and September and October kids are starting back to school, with conflicts in new relationships and a new mix of kids.”

The common perception – best documented in the Spike Lee film, Do the Right Thing – is that the sweltering months of summer are the most violent, but this is not true in muggy summer St. Louis.

In St. Louis in 2010, July and August were two of the most placid months, with nine and seven homicides, respectively. The five-year average for those months are 11.8 homicides for July and 13 for August.

“In the summer months when it gets extremely hot, somewhat of a malaise comes over the community,” Isom said.

As an African-American man, Isom is deeply troubled by one trend in the homicide statistics in St. Louis.

“If you look at 144 homicides, over 90 percent of them are African-American males, almost two-thirds in North St. Louis,” Isom said.

“Certainly that leaves you with the sense that, despite a 9.2 percent reduction in crime, there is just a lot more work to be done.”

Next week, the conversation will continue with Chief Isom’s strategies for reducing crime and homicide in the short term and long term.

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