Residents in our City deserve safe communities. Residents also deserve a criminal justice system that ensures that all people are treated with dignity, respect, and humanity. These items are not mutually exclusive. To achieve both safety and just systems will require that our City does not continue to approach these issues the way we’ve always done.
The City dedicates over half its annual budget to public safety. As a result, St. Louis is among the cities that employ the most law enforcement officers per capita in the nation, only outpaced by Washington D.C. and New York City. Despite the number of officers employed by the City, the City’s homicide rate has more than tripled since 2003 while the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s (SLMPD) solve rate remains low, at 25% (compared to the national average of 60%). At the same time, while it is often said that SLMPD officers are leaving for County departments, Jeremy Kohler of ProPublica found only 3% are actually leaving for neighboring jurisdictions. Most instead, are leaving policing altogether, while is aligned with national trends. On average, police officers are also spending only 4% of their working hours addressing violent crime.
Against this backdrop, other vital services that play an important role in crime prevention have seen dramatic cuts. In 2017, while law enforcement budgets grew, the St. Louis Health Department lost $1 million in funding while affordable housing programs lost $500,000. Public safety goes far beyond law enforcement, but our City’s current budgeting and employment practices do not reflect that reality. Specifically, our failure to invest in such social programs that prevent crime has resulted in escalating crime rates, even as public safety budgets grow. We must provide residents with a range of services to promote public safety in all St. Louis neighborhoods and ensure that law enforcement officers are helping us work toward building a safer city by addressing violent crime.
So, how can we make public safety possible for all City residents?
Investing in Real Public Safety
Expanding proven non-police emergency response systems improves outcomes and decreases costs. Our police are asked to wear many hats and don’t always have the resources or training needed to respond to specific situations. In particular, officers typically are not trained to respond to someone experiencing a mental health crisis, and can unintentionally escalate a situation rather than help in a personal time of need. Our people deserve better.
This is not an issue unique to St. Louis. In fact, many cities in the United States, following the lead of Eugene, Oregon, have created non-police emergency response teams. The teams include a medic and crisis worker who are trained to respond to physical and mental health emergencies. These programs have proven successful both in achieving better outcomes for residents, and in saving costs for departments and municipalities.
St. Louis already established its own non-police emergency response system, Cops and Clinicians 9–1–1 Diversion Program, in 2021 to connect people to the appropriate social services while reducing the need for police and EMS response in times of emergency. It has already proven itself to be successful both in the outcomes for residents and the cost-savings to taxpayers.
On the program’s 1st anniversary, 5,000 City residents had been served. Ninety-five percent of participants had been connected to vital services rather than being arrested, and 87% received care without the need for hospitalization. By using non-police emergency services, the program saved SLMPD over 2,000 working hours and 500 ambulance dispatches — which saved the City an estimated $2.2 million.
It’s clear: employing specially-trained non-police emergency response officers to be dispatched to emergency calls involving physical and mental health crises will lead to better public safety services for our City, while also saving taxpayers’ money.
We must expand the Cops and Clinicians program, building on its initial success, to ensure that St. Louis residents have access to necessary emergency services and that the SLMPD can remain focused on addressing violent crime throughout our City.
Expanding the use of non-police responders to traffic enforcement would increase enforcement, decrease officer/civilian interactions, and provide the same benefits as the CAC program. The City continues to rank the most dangerous in the United States for pedestrians. We have to make our streets safe for people to walk, bike, and drive along. However, simply dispatching more law enforcement officers to regulate traffic may not solve the problem. In fact, increasing the number of proactive interactions between officers and civilians has been proven to lead to increased use of force by police officers.
As noted above, the Cops and Clinicians Program has demonstrated that dividing services currently provided by SLMPD among a range of personnel benefits both the police and the public: a win, win. Similarly, employing a group of non-police traffic officers who are tasked with maintaining traffic safety will allow SLMPD officers to remain focused on addressing violent crime while improving services for community members.
This strategy has proved successful in cities like Berkeley and Minneapolis, allowing police officers to remain focused on addressing violent crime while traffic enforcement officers maintain safety in the streets.
Designating unarmed officials to enforce traffic codes throughout the City could both improve traffic safety in St. Louis and streamline the number of roles our law enforcement officers are expected to fill.
Expanding the use of the Cure Violence model will help interrupt violent crime before it occurs. As we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic — diseases can be costly, disruptive, difficult to address, and deadly. Gun violence is no different. Reframing gun violence as an epidemic, as suggested in the Cure Violence model, helps to identify factors that contribute to the problem, or contagions, as well as places for intervention. The model relies on 3 steps to interrupt patterns of violence: detect and interrupt violent events, provide ongoing behavioral support to high-risk individuals, and change community norms that encourage violence. The Cure Violence model has been successfully implemented in over 100 cities and 10 countries.
In St. Louis, the St. Louis Area Violence Prevention Commission (STLAreaVPC) has begun implementing the Cure Violence model in the Dutchtown, Walnut Grove East, Wells Goodfellow, and Hamilton Heights neighborhoods. At the end of 2021, the Cure Violence model had been used to interrupt nearly 500 violent events within these neighborhoods. Additionally, the STLAreaVPC hosted over 100 community events reaching more than 13,000 community members. Moving forward, we need to expand this model throughout our City and ensure that it is implemented with the care and resources necessary for success.
Incorporating practices from the Operation Peacemaker Program will amplify the impact of the Cure Violence model and lower rates of violent crime. In Richmond, California, the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Operation Peacemaker Fellowship have worked to reduce the rates of gun violence in their community. The Operation Peacemaker Fellowship program has resulted in an average annual homicide rate reduction of 35.5%.
The Operation Peacemaker program selects fellows among the community residents suspected to be involved with the most incidents of gun violence. The fellowship aims to increase a fellow’s skills, credentials, experiences, and economic opportunities while decreasing the number of incidents of gun violence they are involved in.
In St. Louis, we can build upon the Cure Violence model being used to address attitudes and behaviors about gun violence by incorporating practices from the Operation Peacemaker Fellowship. By targeting support and resources to those individuals most likely to perpetrate gun violence and creating additional opportunities for economic success, we could take meaningful action toward reducing our City’s homicide rate.
Establish specialized non-police Victims Advocates that use trauma-informed processes in conducting victim interviews. Whether someone breaks into a car or garage, or someone is held at gunpoint, being a victim of a crime is traumatic. Frequently, however, when a crime victim calls police for a non-emergent issue, or a crime that has already occured, victims do not receive trauma-informed care. Instead, intense questioning can leave victims feeling further traumatized.
A trauma-informed non-police victims advocate should be available to collect incident reports from victims following a crime. Utilizing a trauma-informed lens when working with victims of crime will lead to more accurate incident reports and avoid retraumatizing victims. This practice will not only lead to more accurate records of events and crimes for law enforcement agencies but would also allow police officers to dedicate their energy toward ongoing emergencies and violent crimes.
Creating a More Accountable Policing System
Streamline SLMPD organizational structure and staffing. Based on an analysis of patrol staffing, calls for service, response times, and crime patterns, SLMPD should work to consolidate units across the department to reflect the ongoing needs of the City. It is crucial that this organizational restructuring would result in more officers being available for community patrol rather than administrative or executive duties.
Currently, districts are staffed evenly throughout the City, rather than in proportion to district size or the number of crimes reported in a given location. Shifting how districts are staffed, to be responsive to changes in populations and rates of crime, would result in a more responsive SLMPD and assist districts that currently feel short-staffed in proportion to external demand.
Ensure officers remain focused on addressing violent crimes in our City. In police departments throughout the nation, officers are spending more time on routine responsibilities than violent crime. In fact, on average, just 4% of an officer’s time is devoted to addressing violent crimes.
As noted above, many of the routine duties that law enforcement officers are tasked with, like traffic monitoring, non-violent disturbances, and mental health crises, can be better addressed by other professionals. By building a more robust understanding of public safety, and therefore Department of Public Safety, SLMPD officers can remain focused on addressing violent crimes while outsourcing other duties to a range of professionals.
Require the Department to document feedback from the public. The SLMPD currently administers formal public surveys periodically to understand civilians’ perceptions of and experiences with the SLMPD. However, there is no department-wide standard for collecting and documenting feedback from community engagement meetings. In order for the Department to be responsive to the public, they must keep a record of our opinions, experiences, and concerns. We must demand that the SLMPD create a formalized system to collect and document public feedback and internal incorporation of or response to feedback, so that the department remains accountable to our City’s residents.
Regulate privatized policing throughout St. Louis. A recent St. Louis Post Dispatch article explores how certain neighborhoods in St. Louis bolster the presence of St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department officers by hiring private police forces. However, the private police forces are employing off-duty City police officers — paying more than officers would receive to work overtime through the SLMPD. Officers are being offered significant incentives both in the form of wages and rewards to work for private police forces in the City.
In other cities across the nation, police forces and officers can be contracted for work while off-duty. However, this process typically occurs directly through the police department or City management. The growing presence of privatized police forces throughout our City lends to an unaccountable policing system that is nonresponsive to taxpayers but instead to the highest bidder. It creates disparities where neighborhoods that can afford to tax themselves more get more services and neighborhoods that cannot afford to tax themselves more get less services. We must address the privatization of policing in St. Louis to ensure equitable distribution of resources across the City. The City must have the ability to approve if, when, and where SLMPD officers are contracted to work secondary shifts within private companies to ensure equitable distribution of policing resources throughout our City.
Investing in Crime Prevention
In order for all City residents to feel safe, people need access to a wide range of resources and supports apart from law enforcement.
Restore vacant land throughout the City. In St. Louis, there are currently over 20,000 vacant lots and buildings — mostly located in majority-Black census tracts. Research has demonstrated that higher rates of crime and violence are associated with vacancies. However, inexpensive interventions can decrease the amount of crime associated with vacancies. For example, removing trash from a lot, planting new low-maintenance grass, and periodically checking the status of the lot has been proven to both improve perceptions of public safety and reduce the amount of crime happening in a given area among community members. St. Louis has an opportunity to transform the landscape of the City by repurposing vacant lots: creating additional green space and places for community interaction.
Abate lead throughout the City. Research indicates that children who are expose to lead when they are young are more likely to engage in criminal behavior as adults. Due to the age of our housing stock, St. Louis continues to have high levels of lead throughout large swaths of our City. We must increase investment in remediation of lead throughout our community to set our kids up for success.
Support initiatives to distribute emergency financial assistance to St. Louis residents. In 2021, Mayor Tishaura Jones and the Board of Aldermen enacted a plan to spend $135,000,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, bringing relief to the people of St. Louis following the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The plan included efforts to support the City’s low-income households via a one-time direct cash payment of $500. Initial program analysis suggests that most households receiving a direct cash payment from the City used the funds on basic necessities — like rent, groceries, and utilities.
Ensuring that all people have the resources that they need to thrive is a vital element of public safety. In fact, emergency financial assistance programs have been proven to reduce arrests of violent crimes by 51%. Our City has successfully implemented a direct cash assistance program during a crucial time of need. Moving forward, we need to build upon this initial success to ensure that St. Louis can continue to provide emergency financial assistance payments to low-income households so that all of our City’s residents continue to have access to the resources they need.
Increase the number of substance use treatment facilities in the City. Research demonstrates that increasing the number of substance use treatment facilities is associated with decreasing rates of violent and financially-motivated crime. In an effort to increase the number of substance use treatment facilities accessible to St. Louis residents, the City can financially incentivize the creation of substance use treatment programs that are free or accept MO Healthnet, or Medicaid, insurance — to guarantee that all people have access to the care that they need.
Creation of an Unhoused Bill of Rights. We are facing a housing crisis. Housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable and scarce in the City. We must create protections for our City’s residents without homes. Passing an Unhoused Bill of Rights would ensure that individuals experiencing homelessness are not criminalized and have access to quality services.
Establish access to low-barrier shelters. It can be challenging for individuals to access shelter in the City. Many of St. Louis’ shelters are considered “high-barrier” because people must meet a number of qualifications to be allowed to stay in the shelter. As a result, many people seeking shelter are denied access. St. Louis needs a low-barrier shelter where people can find support whether or not they have an I.D., own a pet, or are using alcohol or other substances. In Oklahoma City, Oklahoma the creation of a low-barrier homeless shelter has meant that as many as 140 city residents that would typically not be sheltered through the night have a bed.
St. Louis can be and should be doing more to protect its residents. We all have a role to play in creating public safety within our communities. With me as President of the Board of Aldermen, I am dedicated to doing my part to build a holistic public safety system that delivers real results.