Homicides fall 26% to pre-COVID levels in St. Louis
Police Chief John Hayden said his department's work targeting the most violent areas may be a factor in the drop
By Erin Heffernan
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS — St. Louis police Chief John Hayden's phone lights up — day or night — when there's a homicide in the city.
Heading into 2021, after the city had seen a history-making surge in murders in 2020, the chief was bracing for another year with his phone abuzz with bad news.
But sometime last spring, the surge began to wane.
St. Louis criminal homicides fell about 26% last year — to 195 from 263 in 2020. That returned the city's total to near its average in the five years before 2020. In each of those years, the city's homicide rate led the nation's big cities.
Still, 2021 moved in the right direction. For that, Hayden is thankful, he told the Post-Dispatch this week.
"That surge was definitely noticeable. I had a lot of sleepless nights."
Meanwhile, St. Louis County police — the area's next-largest law enforcement agency — investigated about 28% more murders last year within the department's jurisdiction, which covers more than a third of the county. The 55 killings marked the most in the county police jurisdiction since at least 1984, according to department and FBI crime data.
There were an average of 36 homicides in the same area in the previous five years.
St. Louis County police Sgt. John Wall, of the robbery and homicide investigations unit, said personal feuds, domestic killings and the prevalence of guns may be driving that trend.
"There's parts of North County where just about everybody over 12 has access to a gun," Wall said. "So that's part of the problem."
Comprehensive law enforcement data on homicides for the entire county is not available, as many of the more than 55 police agencies in the county have not submitted final totals to the Missouri Highway Patrol, which compiles the state's crime stats.
But there were at least 89 killings in the county in 2021, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's homicide tracker, which launched online this week and is derived from news coverage of killings in the region.
That compares with 114 murders reported countywide in 2020, and an average of 78 annually in the five years before that, according to Missouri Highway Patrol police data.
The city drop
St. Louis fared better than many other large cities in 2021.
Homicide totals returned to pre-pandemic levels here, while other big-city departments saw killings continue to rise following the 2020 spike.
The warmest months, which typically spark the most homicides, drove the city's drop. From May through August last year, the city's murder count fell by more than half to 63, compared with 136 in 2020.
Hayden said his department's work targeting the most violent areas and people, as well as an easing of some desperation and anxiety caused by the pandemic, may be factors behind the reduction in murders.
"I think they'll be studying that for a long time, but that's at least one explanation," he said.
St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones told the Post-Dispatch in an interview that changes her administration made in policing have moved the city's homicide totals in the right direction.
Her public safety director, former St. Louis police chief Dan Isom, introduced new policing strategies over the summer, adding more officers on duty during high crime times and in areas where crime was spiking.
The department continued to support the "Cops and Clinicians" program launched by previous Mayor Lyda Krewson's administration in January 2021. The program puts mental health professionals in police cars with St. Louis officers to provide resources to people in crisis at crime scenes. The program has logged more than 3,700 interactions since it was launched, according to city data.
The mayor has said the goal of the program is to improve community relationships with police and help defuse crises before they escalate to violence.
"I've said over and over and over again that this is an all-hands-on-deck effort that is going to take everybody doing their part, not only in law enforcement, but also in the community," Jones said. She added: "But again, one homicide is one too many. We know that we have a long way to go."
This year, Jones said, her administration plans to dedicate $5 million to expand Cure Violence, a violence-reduction program that hires people from high-crime areas to works as "interrupters." They help people to find jobs and get other support while also de-escalating conflicts before guns are drawn.
Neighborhoods for the expansion have not yet been selected, Jones said. The program launched in 2020 and is operating in parts of five neighborhoods: Walnut Park East, Walnut Park West, Hamilton Heights, Wells-Goodfellow and Dutchtown.
Overall, homicides have dropped in the Cure Violence neighborhoods. Totals from all areas went from 54 in 2019, to 55 in 2020 and 30 in 2021.
The homicide rate wasn't the only improvement in the city in 2021.
Reports of violent crimes — homicides, manslaughter, rape and aggravated assaults — were down about 11% overall in the city through October compared with 2020, according to the most recent available data published by St. Louis police. City police changed systems for tracking crime statistics in 2021, but the Bureau of Criminal Justice Statistics found the change should typically account for about a 1% increase in violent crime totals.
St. Louis police also registered the department's highest murder clearance rate since 2012.
City police had a clearance rate of 55% last year. That puts St. Louis on par with the national average of about 54% of homicide cases cleared, according to FBI statistics. In 2020, the city's rate was just 36%.
Clearance rates divide the number of homicides in a year by the cases cleared that year, regardless of what year the solved cases occurred. That means the high number of unsolved homicides in 2020 could contribute to the higher clearance rate in 2021.
Fifteen cases in which police made an arrest but St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner's office declined to file charges in 2021 are included in the 108 homicides considered cleared by police.
Hayden said he thinks improved cooperation from witnesses helped the department close more homicide cases.
"We're getting seemingly more cooperation with folks that are telling us more information," he said. "And so again, I think that all goes toward showing that the relationship between the community and the police is improving, when people are willing to share more."
Average caseloads for homicide detectives also fell in the city from 10 each in 2020, to eight in 2021. Hayden redirected the department's six gang unit detectives to help homicide investigators this year to ease the workload, he said.
Since 2016, St. Louis homicide detectives had handled an average of nine to 13 cases a year, far higher than the three to six recommended by policing experts, the Post-Dispatch reported in 2021.
Homicides in the city continue to be concentrated in north St. Louis, which encompasses eight of the nine neighborhoods with the most killings last year. About 91% of homicide victims in the city last year were Black. A gun was the sole weapon used in 95% of the killings.
Fifteen of the city's homicide victims were younger than 17, a drop from 17 the year before.
While St. Louis trends improved, homicides were up about 6.5% through 2021 in the nation's 99 largest cities, according to the most recent data collected by crime analyst Jeff Asher, a co-founder of AH Datalytics.
Murder was up last year in 65 of those 99 big cities.
Within the last four years, St. Louis police have seen a jump in a category of killings not counted in the city's criminal homicide total: self-defense.
There were 26 killings classified as justifiable by police last year. The large majority of those did not involve a law enforcement officer but rather a claim of self-defense made by a civilian, according to department data.
Before 2018, the city had averaged about seven justified homicides a year. The number increased to 10 in 2019 and 16 in 2020.
Hayden said Missouri's self-defense and gun laws are driving the upward trend.
Over the past 15 years, the state Legislature has repealed requirements for gun permits and safety training to carry a concealed weapon. At the same time, legislators expanded legal safeguards for use of a gun in self-defense, including in 2016 removing the requirement that people attempt to back away from trouble in public before using deadly force if there is fear of bodily harm.
"People are more comfortable with making a challenge," Hayden said. "A lot of our homicides are personal disputes and the challenge (of) self-defense is something that I think has been offered quite a bit more often."
Adding self-defense killings into the city's homicide count, total homicides would still have dropped 22% in 2021 from 2020.
County police increase
As in the city, homicides in St. Louis County are intensely concentrated to the north.
The Post-Dispatch homicide tracker found 85 of the 89 killings recorded in 2021 occurred north of Interstate 64 ( Highway 40) and more than 70% of them happened north of Interstate 70.
Wall, the county homicide sergeant, said that beyond the prevalence of guns, he thinks the rise of social media may play a role in disputes growing so heated that they end in violence.
"People are angrier. It's getting to the point of pulling out a gun faster," he said.
Despite the rise in killings in 2021, the county police jurisdiction's homicide rate — about 14 murders for every 100,000 residents — remained far lower than in St. Louis. The city saw about 65 murders for every 100,000 residents last year.
The Post-Dispatch homicide tracker shows county homicides in 2021 clustered in communities near the city.
Police leaders acknowledged an increasing number of crimes spanning the city-county border when they launched a pilot program in 2020 to combine efforts in Jennings in the county and the city's Walnut Park West neighborhood.
"Crime doesn't know geographical boundaries, which is why it's in the region's best interest to address public safety together," then-Mayor Krewson said at the time.
About 80% of 2021 homicides investigated by St. Louis County police by early December were committed with a firearm.
In recent years, Wall said a new category of cases has emerged with parents charged after their young children were killed or seriously injured through contact with the drug fentanyl.
Parents were charged with exposing their young children to fentanyl in at least four cases in St. Louis County last year, including at least one homicide. One-year-old Emya Woods died in August from fentanyl exposure.
County homicide detectives handled an average caseload of 10 to 12 cases each, and their clearance rate was high — 96%, according to department statistics.
"We put in an extreme amount of hours. That's what people don't understand the most," Wall said. "These guys are canceling vacations, missing off days, missing birthdays. You work until the work is done."
(c)2022 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch