Just days before the annual “America’s Safest (and Most Dangerous) Cities” study awarded St. Louis the mantle of “America’s Most Dangerous City,” Police Chief Joe Mokwa complained to the Police Board that his officers “keep re-arresting the same habitual criminals, whose presence keeps some neighborhoods in a crime rut and makes the job of officers more difficult and dangerous.”
No wonder, the chief continued, “that it’s difficult to make an impact on crime while there are so many predators on probation.” The chief then offered, by way of example, the case of one Anthony M., a young St. Louisan who has been arrested no fewer than 32 times, including 39 felony charges, and 11 convictions. And counting.
The problem — and more important, the solution — is plain, noted one beleaguered police commissioner: “The police are doing desperate work on a nightly basis….The neighborhoods are crying out, but the judicial system is turning its back to them….We’ve got to demand stronger sentencing, stronger results. It’s our judicial system that’s letting the people down.” It’s not often that you hear cogs in St. Louis’s Democratic machine attacking each other like this. But evidently St. Louis’s Finest have had enough.
When news of the Morgan Quinto Press rankings hit the streets, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay’s office shifted automatically into damage control mode, which is not quite the same thing as denial mode, but almost. His town, after all, was still basking in the glow of its World Series championship — how dare these frauds bring up the fact that violent crime in St. Louis was up 20 percent last year to its highest level in seven years! Instead the mayor called the study “bogus,” and insisted that everything in St. Louis was hunky dory. (He’s a politician. It’s what they do.)
The mayor’s strategy was to launch personal attacks on the study’s author, Morgan Quinto’s president Scott Morgan. Slay’s spokesman told a reporter that Morgan was just “a guy who’s working in his pajamas and his bare feet in his mother’s basement on his PC,” causing 50,000 bloggers to ask, “And what’s wrong with that?” In his city’s defense Mayor Slay noted that St. Louis is made up mostly of poor and working class folks, and that the study doesn’t take into account the more affluent surrounding counties. Well, maybe because the study was of “cities,” not “cities and more affluent surrounding counties.” Besides, Detroit and Philadelphia — also poor and working class cities — fared better than St. Louis.
All of which is seems somewhat beside the point, which, I suppose, is this: St. Louis reported the highest violent crime and property crime rate among cities of 75,000 or more population. Disturbingly, St. Louis city proved more dangerous than such peaceable kingdoms as Detroit and Flint, Michigan, Compton, California, and Camden, New Jersey. And St. Louis perennially has one of the highest per-capita crime rates in the United States, with 131 murders, and 8,323 violent crimes in 2005, out of a population of 350,000.
It doesn’t take a genius criminologist to see that the root of the problem is St. Louis’ revolving prison door policy, where the number of criminals who receive probation is at an all-time high. Not surprisingly, 47 percent of those on probation are re-arrested within two years. This fits in well with the findings of an oft-cited study that found that an estimated 6 percent of criminals commit 50 percent of crimes.
MEANWHILE ST. LOUIS REMAINS ONE of the most segregated cities in the nation. Large swaths of north St. Louis are streaked with boarded up and burned out brick homes. Its public schools are some of the worst in the nation. Compounding the problem is its one daily newspaper, the ultra-liberal Post-Dispatch, which, as a watchdog, is about an effective as Hello Kitty. Democrats have held a monopoly on city politics for as long as anyone can remember, but it has been the local judiciary and, in particular ultra-liberal judges like the Hon. Evelyn Baker, who raised the ire of former Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce when her too-lenient sentencing of drug offenders began to threaten public safety in 2004. Joyce told the Post-Dispatch that her office — unlike some local judges — does not consider drug trafficking a victimless crime. “It’s totally corrosive to neighborhoods,” she said. Totally.
Nonetheless Judge Baker and her fellow liberals remain loath to give drug offenders (even dealers) tough sentences, preferring “treatment,” as if treatment were somehow going to “cure” dealers and gangbangers. Considering that most crime, homicide especially, is drug-related, and that drug gangs control St. Louis’s high-crime areas, doesn’t this send the message that the courts are siding with the drug dealers?
Despite all this progressive backwardness, St. Louis has made some important strides. Gone are most of the crime-ridden 1960s and '70s housing projects, replaced by more livable duplexes and homes. Gentrification has revived some of the quaint old neighborhoods. (Liberals, not surprisingly, complain that this drives out the poor blacks as housing prices stabilize.) After decades of sustained middle class flight, the city has ceased losing population. Downtown has experienced a small renaissance, and then there are the world champion Cardinals. (In a silly postscript, the mayor asked why, if St. Louis were really so dangerous, did not Cardinal fans go on a drunken, bloody rampage after clinching the World Series title? We’ll let the professors of philosophy tackle that one.)
Ultimately the Morgan Quinto study probably won’t have much impact on St. Louis tourism, industry, or families considering relocating here. St. Louis has earned the top spot before — back in 2002 — and has been near the top ever since. Besides change has never been St. Louis’s forte. Folks here like to say they are always ten years behind whatever is happening on the coasts. Nor do a political monopoly and a toothless watchdog provide much impetus for change. One thing is certain, however. If you are a drug dealer or narcotics trafficker, St. Louis is the town for you.
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