Analysis: Putting St. Louis' crime increase in context
The following headline appeared over an April 25 St. Louis Post-Dispatch story: “Crime down, except for the killings.” So much for the city’s efforts to play down its ranking as the nation’s crime capital. Homicides are way up in St. Louis, and the drop in non-lethal violence appears to have ended. The city had better prepare for a long, hot summer.
St. Louis is not alone. Crime rates are rising in cities across the country. Homicides are up by 16 percent in New York and 9 percent in Los Angeles through mid-May, compared with the same period last year. Chicago, Phoenix and Charlotte, N.C. have recorded double-digit increases in robberies. So, local conditions peculiar to St. Louis cannot fully explain the recent crime rise here.
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Crime increases when the economy sours. Crime rates have spiked during every recession in the past 50 years. And crime drops when the economy recovers. The unprecedented crime decline of the 1990s, during which St. Louis' homicide rates fell by more than 50 percent, coincided with the largest peacetime economic expansion on record. It would be unusual, to say the least, if crime did not rise during the current economic downturn.
The long-term connection between the economy and crime should not produce fatalism but strategic thinking and community involvement in the months ahead. Local officials cannot reverse the business cycle, but they can take actions to limit the fallout.
Policing research indicates that the best enforcement strategies are those that target crime “hot spots” -- areas in which robberies, assaults and other street crimes have spiked -- with enhanced police patrols.
The success of such efforts depends on timely and detailed information about where and when crime is occurring and rapid deployment of resources to the affected areas. When crime moves, the police must as well. The hot-spots strategy should not be limited to a specialized unit, but should become the primary and permanent basis for deploying patrols across the city.
A Thousand Eyes
Mobilization against crime should not be limited to the police. The schools and community centers should be open and available during the summer to all children needing a safe and constructive place to play and learn. Neighborhood watch and other community groups should remind residents of the importance of keeping doors and windows locked, abandoned properties boarded up, and of alerting the police to trouble. “A thousand eyes on the street” should become the watchword of every St. Louis neighborhood.
More Context, Fewer Tidbits
The local media have a critical role to play in the coming months by covering crime less like celebrity gossip, parading one juicy tidbit after another, and more like changing business conditions. Useful news stories always place the dramatic detail in broader context. If a local business closes and hundreds of workers are laid off, the press account typically situates the event in the context of the overall business failure rate or the general economic climate, which gives the news consumer some perspective on the immediate crisis.
Crime news editors and producers should show no less respect for the consumer and place the “whodunit” details in the context of long-term trends and general conditions. More constructive media coverage can contribute to a community climate in which rationality prevails over hysteria in the response to crime.
St. Louisans have a choice as the summer months approach. We can demand that children are protected from crime and volunteer where needed. We can stay vitally connected to our neighborhoods, keep an eye out for criminal activity and alert the police when it occurs. We can insist on thoughtful media coverage and law enforcement strategies of proven effectiveness. Or we can do nothing.
Either way, crime is likely to increase in the short run, but an informed and engaged public contributes to the sense of community that is essential for the long-term viability of the city.
Columnist Mike Guzy says the murder rate's been high since Cain slew Abel.