Profiles in homicide
The recent murder of Megan Boken has once again focused public attention on the enduring problem of crime in St. Louis. In response to this senseless tragedy, Police Chief Daniel Isom has transferred extra officers from day auxiliary shifts (10 a.m.-6 p.m.) to second shifts (6 p.m.-2 a.m.).
The chief’s move will put more officers on the street during peak crime hours but would have done nothing to save Boken, who was shot during an attempted robbery in an up-scale neighborhood at 2:20 in the afternoon. This slaughter in broad daylight garnered even more press than it would otherwise because the deceased did not fit the profile of a typical city homicide victim. She was a 23-year-old white female college graduate with no criminal record who was talking with her mother on a cell phone at the time of death. In short, she exhibited none of the risky behaviors or lifestyle choices that often lead to victimization.
Some rather deft detective work resulted in the apprehension of two suspects who have subsequently been charged with Boken’s murder. Though the young woman was an atypical victim, her accused killers are straight out of central casting: two black males aged 18 years. In St. Louis, at least, the young black male demographic tends to dominate homicide statistics.
Through last Sunday, St. Louis Police report 85 criminal homicides in the city proper for the year to date. While that number is nothing to celebrate, it’s down considerably from what it was 20 years ago.
Sixty-seven of this year’s victims were black males and 13 were black females, meaning that the black community sustained just more than 94 percent of the city’s homicides while comprising roughly 50 percent of the permanent city population. Of the 36 people who have been arrested for murder thus far in 2012, 31 were black males, 4 were black females and 1 was a white male. Most local homicides thus involve a black male slain by another black male — and the majority of these people are under the age of 35.
I mention these numbers not to incite racial animus but to point out that any sensible effort to staunch this bloodbath is going to necessarily involve some degree of racial profiling. In a city in which 79 percent of murder victims and 89 percent of murder suspects are black males, heightened scrutiny of Asian females won’t do much to lower the homicide rate.
These facts leave cops in a dicey situation because preventative efforts targeted at a specific group are bound to spur backlash. Civil libertarians will claim, correctly, that de facto profiling is horribly unfair to most young black men who are not engaged in criminal activity.
To further complicate the dilemma, the attorney general’s office requires police agencies to annually report racial data about the persons they encounter in the course of their duties. The cops now have to complete a profiling form for each car stop or pedestrian check they perform. Departments are evaluated to determine whether minorities are receiving disproportionate attention from the police.
Rather than try to turn the police force into a laboratory for sociological experimentation, wouldn’t the city be better served if the cops were allowed to concentrate on criminal behavior rather than the pedigree of the suspect?
Of course, nobody enjoys being stopped and questioned by the police. On the other hand, the status quo leaves black citizens to sustain about 94 percent of the casualties of our urban warfare. And many of those victims, like Megan Boken, were not doing anything criminal that led to their death. I assume people generally would prefer to be inconvenienced than dead.
The Fourth Amendment provides that citizens are to be free from unreasonable search and seizure on the part of the state. So-called fishing expeditions and race-based stops clearly violate that principle.
But just what is reasonable varies according to circumstances. Throw your mother-in-law out the window during a family fight and you go to jail. Toss her out of the same opening when the house is on fire and you’re a hero.
Similarly, criminal profiles vary from place to place. A black trooper combating meth traffic in rural Missouri is going to spend most of his time dealing with white suspects while a white detective working homicides in St. Louis is going to question a lot of black people. Neither officer is necessarily a racist because the ethnic disparity of their caseloads results from offender behavior patterns, not some mysterious and sinister institutional prejudice.
Jack Kennedy once commented, “Things do not happen. Things are made to happen.” Perhaps it’s time for a frank discussion of what needs to happen to address the blight of chronic violence in this city.