By ALAN J. ORTBALS
One of the first moves new mayor Lyda Krewson made after taking office was to release Police Chief Sam Dotson. That action got three cheers from me. I’m not saying that Dotson was a bad guy or necessarily did a bad job. I don’t think Krewson was saying that either. But clearly he didn’t have the answer for St. Louis’ crime problem which is one of the worst in the nation.
I also applaud her decision to undertake a national search rather than promote from within. We can’t keep taking the same approach and expecting different outcomes. Krewson’s next move — hiring a new chief — is one of the most important things that will happen in the metro area over the next year.
The city of St. Louis is the hub of this metropolitan region. The strength of its suburbs on both sides of the river relies on the strength of the city. And, the most basic building block in the foundation of a city is security. If people are afraid, they won’t live there; they won’t visit there; they won’t do business there.
Anyone who watches the local news is familiar with the anecdotal evidence. We hear the stories nightly of carjackings, murders, running gun battles in the street, people being shot leaving the baseball game, kids being killed in the crossfire. A couple of months ago, a woman got hit with a stray bullet while sitting in her seat at Busch Stadium.
But, it’s not just anecdotal. St. Louis has the highest violent crime rate in the nation. Worse than Detroit, worse than Baltimore, worse than Newark, believe it or not worse than Chicago — twice as high. St. Louis is the murder capital of the U.S. and it’s also among the leaders in the rates of rape, robbery and aggravated assault.
Clearly, no one with the SLPD knows what to do so Krewson should go find someone who does.
Other cities are doing a much better job of controlling crime. St. Louis’s violent crime rate is 1,817 per hundred thousand of population. By contrast, Dallas’s rate is 694; Los Angeles, 635 and New York City, just 585. Obviously, they are doing something right.
These aren’t naturally safe cities. They’ve witnessed horrific crime in the past but they’ve made remarkable transformations. Violent crime in New York City has plummeted over the last 25 years. In 1990 NYC recorded 2,245 murders. Last year there were just 335. And the downward trend is continuing. Mayor de Blasio recently announced that April was the safest month ever in the Big Apple.
The picture is the same in Los Angeles. In 1992 LA recorded 2,589 murders. There were just 282 in 2015. There are people in those police departments that know how to make this kind of transformation happen.
If I were Krewson, I wouldn’t just put out a help wanted sign and hope for the best. I’d hire a head hunter and have them research these cities; find out what they are doing; how they are doing it; and who the key people are who know how to make the streets safe. Those are the people I’d want to talk to about heading up my police force. While we’re stumbling around in the dark on this thing, there are people out there who hold the answers. We need to hire one of them.
I know, money is a problem. The city is cash strapped and is finding it difficult even to compete with the suburban forces for officers. And I’m sure top rank cops make a lot more in the big cities. But this particular hire is the most important one Krewson will ever make and is essential to the health and vitality of the entire region.
I would go to Civic Progress, the group of CEOs of the largest companies in St. Louis. That’s a group you haven’t heard about in a long time but it’s one that should come to the fore now to get this job done. I’d ask them to put up the money to hire the right chief and pay them what’s necessary to bring them to St. Louis.
There has been an extraordinary amount of investment both public and private in the city over the last 30 years —from Washington University to Cortex to CityArchRiver. This will all go for naught if the city can’t solve its crime problem and that will be bad for all of us.