Friday, April 1, 2022

St. Louis' drop in murders may not be what it seems

When the final numbers showed that St. Louis had reduced its murders last year while other big cities were hitting records, city officials said their success was due to smart use of crime data and effective anti-violence programs.

But over the past two years, St. Louis has quietly lowered its murder count in another way: classifying more than three dozen killings as what are termed justifiable homicides, sometimes in apparent violation of FBI guidelines for reporting crimes, a ProPublica/APM Reports investigation found. ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. 

From 2010 through 2019, St. Louis police classified an average of six killings a year by private citizens as justifiable homicides, meaning incidents in which someone killed another person who was committing a serious criminal offense. Those cases were not counted in the city’s official murder tally.

In 2020, they counted at least 17 that way. In 2021, the number jumped to at least 22. Had just a handful of those justifiable homicides been classified as murders, St. Louis might have set its all-time murder record in 2020 and had its second highest annual total in 27 years in 2021 — changes that might have altered the conversation about the city’s success in reducing violent crime.

The news organizations found that over the two years, detectives sought murder charges in at least five cases labeled as justified. Prosecutors declined to file charges in four of them; in the fifth, prosecutors later charged a suspect with murder, but the case was still counted in police statistics as a justifiable homicide. FBI guidelines say police must count murders based on results from their investigation, regardless of a prosecutor’s action.

The news organizations’ examination of crime statistics doesn’t alter the overall picture of the city’s decline in murder last year — from what the department reported as 263 in 2020 to 198 last year, a drop of nearly 25%. But it adds important context to that picture, showing the city’s murder count is becoming less reliable as a measure of the number of lives that ended in violence.

In cities that have struggled to contain violent crime, as St. Louis has, the murder count is a rolling report card that is used to measure the success or failure of elected leaders and the police department.

The murder tally has long been the first item of business at the department’s Monday morning media briefing, which catalogs weekend violence. So far this year, the reduction in homicides has continued. But the rise in slayings classified as justifiable has not received much attention from the public.

When the murder count goes up, companies talk about leaving the city, residents consider moving away and local politicians debate new anti-crime measures. Officials in St. Louis even considered using surveillance aircraft to battle a reported rise in street violence. When the murder count goes down, officials cite it as an example of their sound leadership.

Two years ago, the issue of the city’s crime rate became especially urgent, with the metro area’s largest public company, the health care company Centene, getting involved. In November 2020, according to records, Jim Brown, a consultant to then-Mayor Lyda Krewson, suggested in an email to a consultant — who was working for Centene to evaluate the police department — that St. Louis could better manage the issue by combining its data with the much larger suburban St. Louis County.

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