This is the first in a series where we ask local leaders what we need to do differently to address the crisis in homicides in St. Louis.
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson has offered solutions to the city’s dramatic homicide crisis: eliminating the residence requirement for police officers and boosting their pay to help the department recruit more officers. This, she said at a press conference on Friday, January 3, would address a staffing shortfall of about 130 officers.
“We have to solve crimes, we have to make arrests, we have to hold those folks accountable,” Krewson said. “But you need law enforcement to do that. And we’re here to support our law enforcement so they can do that.”
Krewson was responding, in part, to the deaths of seven people in St. Louis in the first 36 hours of the year, with six of those deaths – all black victims – suspected to be homicides. There were 194 homicides in St. Louis in 2019; 175 of the victims (or 90 percent) were black. The annual average number of homicides in the city from 2015-2019 was 192, with nearly all of the victims black.
“Considering the circumstances, I think our police department is doing a great job,” Krewson said.
In 2017, St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura O. Jones came within 888 votes in a crowded Democratic primary (where Krewson was the only white candidate) from beating out Krewson for this job. Jones’ enduring influence and popularity prompted a veteran Post-Dispatch columnist to dub her the “shadow mayor” in 2018 and recycle the term last September.
What did Jones think of the mayor’s crisis response? What does she think we need to be doing differently to change the trajectory of lost black lives?
“This is one of those times when all of us need to be at the table bringing our collective resources and willpower and offices to the situation,” Jones told The American. And is the mayor – the city’s putative leader – making that happen?
“On New Year’s Eve, I was at an event focused on lives lost in 2019 with the mayor, the president of the Board of Aldermen and several other elected officials, and the mayor called for working together in her remarks. But I still haven’t seen anything,” Jones said.
“When I ran in 2017, I said I would host regular – not exactly cabinet meetings – but regular meetings with other elected officials to create an environment where collaboration and cooperation are the norm. Since Krewson was elected, I was never asked to attend any event in mayor’s office related to gun violence or any of the violence happening in the city.”
Jones said she was surprised that the mayor offered no sense of an urgent need to try new strategies to stem the loss of life, other than pointing to a spring roll-out of Cure Violence. Even that initiative was started by community groups, not the mayor’s office or the police department, and Krewson politicized it on social media during the city’s fragmented governmental process of approving funding for it.
“The blueprint is out there in several cities bigger than St. Louis that have addressed crime more creatively and seen double-digit decreases in homicides,” Jones said. “I don’t know what we’re waiting for. We’re supposed to be the Show Me State, but other cities have shown that gun violence reduction is possible – even in states like Missouri, where gun laws are lax. If we can’t get the guns off the streets, then what are we doing to get resources down to the grassroots to help the people who are affected?”
Her reference to the grassroots reflects her belief, which she shares with Aristotle, that poverty is at the root of violent crime. “Poverty is the father of crime – so says Aristotle,” she said.
Obviously, addressing poverty is a long-term solution unlikely to affect the police blotter tonight. Jones rightly pointed out that she has used the much more limited powers of her own office to address poverty. She increased the minimum wage in her office to $15 an hour, well above the state and federal minimum wages. She partnered with financial institutions to steer people away from predatory payday lending. She started a College Kids child savings account program for all children in the city’s public schools – one of the few calls to action in the Ferguson Commission report that has been implemented by any elected official.
To bolster the point that long-term solutions to poverty do not necessarily yield short-term reductions in violent crime, Jones started College Kids in 2015, and homicides in the city only have risen since then. Those funds can only be used to pay for post-secondary education, so by design their effects won’t be seen for a generation.
So what do we do now? What do we do differently now?
Unlike Krewson, who claimed that “our police department is doing a great job,” Jones believes the department needs a dramatic new direction. “We need to reimagine public safety,” she said.
Jones pointed to a promising pilot program right here in the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, where Captain Perri Johnson is partnering with social workers to intervene in the lives of people living marginal lives. This initiative actually garnered the city police a rare example of positive national press on January 3 in U.S. News & World Report. “We want to focus on the social issues before they become criminal issues,” Johnson told the news magazine.
Jones was puzzled why the mayor is not publicly praising this initiative and trying to pull together more resources to solidify and expand it.
“We have all of these health and education resources,” she said. “We have two of the top hospitals and social work schools in the country. And I don’t think we do a good job of utilizing these resources to cure what is happening in our communities. Our universities have to be part of the cure to the illnesses of the communities they live in. I’m not saying they don’t want to be involved. We just suffer from not having a plan.”