MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Murder rates tend to get a lot of attention—especially during political campaigns.
TRUMP: And yet the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years. Right? Did you know that?
REICHARD: The national murder rate actually peaked in the 19-90s, but it did tick upward from 20-14 to 20-16. Most of that was due to spikes in a handful of cities—like Chicago, where that two-year period saw the murder rate double.
AUDIO: There’s been an alarming surge of gun violence in America’s third-largest city, Chicago. / It’s a sign of just how bad things are here in Chicago. / Deadly gun violence is surging in Chicago once again.
NICK EICHER, HOST: But there are at least two asterisks to that surge in Chicago.
The first is that Chicago’s murder rate actually dropped last year.
The second asterisk is that Chicago isn’t actually the country’s most dangerous city, on a per-capita basis. That dubious distinction goes to St. Louis, Missouri.
WORLD Radio’s Kristen Flavin is based in St. Louis, and she’s prepared a two-part report on this issue. Next week, she’ll talk about efforts to turn things around.
But today, she’ll explore the nature of the problem.
GENTEMAN: My Name is Todd Genteman, and I am a church planter in north St. Louis at Apostles Church.
KRISTEN FLAVIN, REPORTER: Todd Genteman and his wife Juliette moved with their two small children to the Academy neighborhood in 2009. Right away they fell in love with the community.
GENTEMAN: Our neighbors are incredible. People really care for each other and look out for each other. We’ve had people, uh, run would-be car thieves out of our vehicle. Then we’ve had folks share meals with us. Our kids play in our front yard with neighbors. It’s just a community.
Genteman says there’s a lot of empty houses in his neighborhood, and some of the houses are falling apart. But he says the people on his block take a lot of pride in the neighborhood. Many of them have been there for almost 60 years.
But the neighborhood faces some deadly challenges. One Sunday morning Genteman started getting text messages from panicked church members.
GENTEMAN: And people are looking at the news reports that there were multiple murders in the neighborhood where our church is at, and on the way driving to the building, I was getting more texts of people having difficulty getting into the building, because there were three murders in different areas all within two blocks in the church.
Last year, the city of St. Louis logged more than 200 homicides. That’s a 70 percent increase since 2013.
Most of those are concentrated in a handful of low-income neighborhoods. Rich Rosenfeld is a criminology and criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
ROSENFELD: When we talk about St. Louis as being quote top of the list, we’re really not talking about the risk faced by the average St. Louis city resident. We’re talking about the very high risk experienced by a relatively small fraction of the city population.
Genteman and his family live in that relatively small fraction. That’s why they don’t often venture out at night.
GENTEMAN: A lot of the things that you hear news reports about happen at times when folks are sleeping. They happen around dangerous situations, drugs and things like that. Not just driving to work, typically.
And that’s why Rosenfeld says lifestyle choices are often the most important risk factor. For example, the elderly have a very low risk for homicide, because they typically stay inside after dark.
So why has the St. Louis homicide rate spiked? There’s no single answer.
WARNECKE: If I knew the cause, I’d come up with the formula and I’d be on the talk show circuit…
That’s Major Mary Warnecke. She’s the commander of investigative services for the St. Louis Police Department.
Poverty and joblessness is one factor. So is the opioid epidemic. It has led an increasing number of people into the illicit drug market.
For law enforcement, another problem is poor community relations—especially among the black community.
ROSENFELD: That was in the midst of enormous concern and controversy over police use of force incidents, primarily involving young African-American males, and tensions between African-American communities and police departments.
Those tensions are ongoing, meaning law enforcement has two jobs—image restoration and homicide investigation. The two are closely related, because investigators need witnesses to get information and build a case.
Last year, St. Louis solved less than 40 percent of its homicide cases. That translates to an emboldened criminal element.
Mary Warnecke says her department recognizes it has work to do to restore the trust.
WARNECKE: We’ve really gone full force with trying to build relationships in the community, so that they can have a better understanding of what we do and see that we do have the community’s best interests at heart. And we’re finding building those relationships is, I think is helping, and they can trust us and that we’re trying to solve their family member’s death.
The issues in St. Louis are similar to those in other major cities. That’s why Todd Genteman says all Americans should care about it.
GENTEMAN: I think that we like to make things not our problem. If it’s not in my general vicinity, then it’s not really my issue. And I think that there is a need to see the issues of our cities as the issues of our country and that we can’t dismiss people or problems just because we may not be personally experiencing them.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Kristen Flavin reporting from St. Louis, Missouri.
(Photo/Ariel Dovas, Flickr)