By ALAN ORTBALS
Last year, the city of St. Louis posted a near-record number of murders at 159, and the violence didn’t stop when the crystal ball dropped in Times Square.
There were six murders in one night in January, including a hotel manager behind the desk. A month ago a 6-year-old boy was killed in a shootout between a minivan and an SUV. And a few weeks ago, a gun battle shut down Interstate 44 for several miles and left two men dead. In all, there were 25 dead before St. Patrick’s Day.
St. Louis ranks near the top for homicide rates and most dangerous cities lists. I understand the rationale that its relatively small population and tiny geographic boundaries help propel it to the summit of this shameful list. But, there is no way that college girls should be getting murdered for cell phones or little kids getting shot riding down the street. And running gun battles should only be seen in old Al Capone movies.
I don’t pretend to understand the problem but we all need to work together to develop a solution. We on the east side tend to think murder in the city of St. Louis is their problem. Missourians seem to think that murders on the east side don’t affect them. While we focus on our borderlines and ignore problems on the other side of the fence, people elsewhere don’t know anything about our Balkanized geography and don’t care. To them it’s all St. Louis and we’ve gotten lots of bad publicity over the last year.
Public safety is the foundation of a healthy community. Unless we can solve this problem, things like CityArchRiver and new stadiums are just window dressing. Try attracting new businesses or young professionals to Murder Capital, USA. As they say, that dog won’t hunt.
That’s why I was glad to see St. Louis circuit attorney Jennifer Joyce lead a delegation from St. Louis to Kansas City to learn what our neighbor to the west had done to reduce its murder tab by 40 percent in just one year — a 50-year low.
The answer appears to lie in KC’s No Violence Alliance (NoVA). Whereas the St. Louis Police Department has used a geographically based strategy, concentrating policing on targeted areas for short periods of time, NoVA focuses on the perpetrators of crime and related individuals.
Working with criminologists from the University of Missouri Kansas City, KC law enforcement determined that a tiny portion of the population was responsible for the vast majority of homicides. If you can impact them, you can tamp down crime.
NoVA utilizes a holistic approach, bringing together the various arms of law enforcement — police, prosecution, probation — with social service agencies, clergy and criminologists to try to prevent crime rather than deal with the aftermath. Together they identify those individuals most likely to commit the next violent crime and offer them a carrot and threaten them with a stick.
According to Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, today’s street criminals operate in small, loose affiliations that move rapidly from allies to enemies, creating hovoc in the streets.
These networks resemble spider webs, according to Andrew Fox, a UMKC criminologist. Understanding this web is important because, Fox says, homicide spreads like a communicable disease. The person who is most likely to be shot next is socially connected to someone who’s already been shot. Fox uses a computer program called Pajek, the Slovene word for spider, to track and analyze these social webs and identify the threats.
Critical to the analysis, according to Fox, is to identify the nodes in the network — those individuals who are the largest connection points in the web. Once identified, those individuals are offered social services if they’ll give up the violence or threatened with focused and coordinated reprisals if they do not. This is where the alliance part of NoVA is particularly important, offering pain or gain to the individual and those he cares about.
Kansas City is not alone in its success. Other cities like Boston and Cincinnati have initiated their own programs with similar results. St. Louis can do it too. Until we do, nothing else matters.
Alan J. Ortbals is president and publisher of the Illinois Business Journal.