Police Have a Plan to Deal With St. Louis’ Crime Rate: Play With the Numbers

Police chiefs in one of America's most violent urban centers think its reputation is unwarranted—and they have a proposal to fix it

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A few months ago, St. Louis County’s police chief Tim Fitch met with some of the biggest businesses in his region — Anheuser-Busch, Boeing, Enterprise Rent-A-Car — eager to show how crime in the area has dropped over the last 10 years to levels not seen in decades. Instead, the city’s businesses gave him an earful. “They just unleashed on us,” Fitch says.

St. Louis has a long-running reputation as one of America’s most dangerous cities. For the last 20 years it has ranked in the top eight for violent crimes per capita, including murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and motor vehicle theft. And since 1997, it’s consistently been among the top five. Cities that end up atop the crime rankings worry the negative attention will deter businesses from relocating to the region or dissuade tourists from visiting.

But St. Louis is different from others on the list, at least in Fitch’s view. That’s because St. Louis doesn’t just have a crime problem, he says. It has a crime rate problem. To fix that, Fitch and St. Louis city police chief Sam Dotson have proposed combining city and county crime stats, which would effectively lower the overall rate because crime within the county is much lower. If approved, it could be used as a model for other cities that believe they’re being unfairly compared on a national scale.

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St. Louis is a bit of an anomaly. In 1876, the city seceded from St. Louis County, a move largely stemming from a dispute over paying both city and county taxes. In 1910, St. Louis was the fourth largest metropolis in the U.S. behind only New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. But throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, other cities began to outpace St. Louis by annexing their surrounding areas. St. Louis’s geographical boundaries from the time of secession, however, remained.

Today, the city of St. Louis is 62 square miles. Compare that with New York City (468 square miles), or nearby Memphis (315) and Kansas City (319). And even though St. Louis’s sprawling metropolitan area is much larger than those 62 square miles, it’s the numbers from that urban core that get reported in national numbers that are then used in rankings.

“Any urban core is going to have problems,” Dotson says. “What we don’t have is the suburban and the rural areas that some of those cities have to help offset or balance those crime numbers.”

Richard Rosenfeld, a University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist, has helped the police chiefs write a proposal that has been sent to the FBI, which would have to approve a merger of crime stats. Rosenfeld likes to compare St. Louis to Memphis, two cities in similar areas of the country with comparable socio-economic demographics. But when it comes to national rankings, Memphis is consistently a dozen spots lower.

“On a block-by-block basis, the crime problem in St. Louis city and Memphis are very, very similar,” says Rosenfeld. “But Memphis rarely ends up near the top of these crime rankings,” largely because Memphis continued to grow geographically in the last half of the 20th century.

Another reason Rosenfeld cites for St. Louis’s high rate is the percentage of crimes that occur in St. Louis city by residents of St. Louis county, which make up about 15% to 20% of all crimes in St. Louis city and end up being counted in city stats. In a city like Memphis or Kansas City, where the metropolitan areas have been annexed, fewer crimes are committed by people who live outside of that region.

“That’s over 4,000 victims a year who become part of the numerator,” he says. “But they’re not added to the denominator because they don’t reside in the city.”

The proposal, however, has its critics. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board has called the proposal a “statistical shell game” that merely creates a “Fake St. Louis,” and Robert McCulloch, the county prosecuting attorney, has described the plan as misleading and a PR campaign.

“I think it’s even more deceptive than the process we have right now,” McCulloch says. “Essentially what they’re doing is adding 400,000 people to the city of St. Louis.”

The proposal would combine city stats with numbers from areas under county police jurisdiction, which include unincorporated regions and municipalities that contract with the county police department, all told about 40% of the county.

Critics like McCulloch say that if the city is going to combine crime stats, they should do it for the entire county — including the remaining 60% of the county, which is comprised of about 90 municipalities that have roughly 60 separate police departments, all of which report crime numbers separately.

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In the police chiefs’ arguments for combining stats, they often point to two cities as a model: Indianapolis and Louisville, both of which have not only combined their city and county crime stats, but merged their police departments altogether.

But neither Indy nor Louisville ever had the kind of crime problem St. Louis does, and neither has come close to cracking the top 10 in the annual “most dangerous cities” list.

For Indianapolis, its crime ranking actually went up since it merged police departments in 2007. The year before, Indy was ranked 45th but has climbed steadily upwards. In 2012, it was ranked 34th. Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department’s Lt. Chris Bailey says the city combined its departments primarily to save money and increase effectiveness, not in an attempt to lower its crime rate. Asked whether it makes sense for cities to combine city and county crime stats, he said he doesn’t see a benefit in it.

“It may look better, but they’re often not accurate anyway,” he says, adding that most cities’ crime is underreported by 30%. “We’re not capturing the true crime that’s going on. It’s just a snapshot, not the whole picture.”

Similarly, Louisville began reporting county and city crime information together since 2005 and has seen its ranking drop slightly. Today, the city is ranked in the 130s, but the city has never had the kind of crime problem that would dissuade businesses from locating there.

The St. Louis police chiefs won’t know whether the FBI will approve their proposal until sometime next year. Fitch believes that if the proposal is accepted, allowing the city and county to give the FBI combined stats each year, others may consider something similar. He cites Baltimore as a city that also isn’t a part of the county and may want to combine stats to more accurately reflect the region.

As to criticism that the proposal will include only part of the county, Fitch says that for now, it’s much easier to try to combine two police departments instead of the 60-some police forces that make up the entire region. He believes that the proposal will not only remove St. Louis from that top tier of most dangerous cities, but it may alert more people to the fact that the overall crime rate in St. Louis city is actually lower than it was in 1970.

Crime fell 12.4% in 2012 in St. Louis city, while reports of violent crime have decreased by 4.9%. Robberies, for example, fell 16.5% compared with 2011 and are at the lowest level since 1953. Not all the stats are going in the same direction. The number of homicides stayed the same, for example, while rape and aggravated assaults increased. But still, last year St. Louis city had 87 crimes per 1,000 people, according to the city police department. In 1970, there were 115 crimes per 1,000 residents.

While he acknowledges that reducing crime is still more important than lowering the national ranking, Fitch believes St. Louis’s reputation as a crime-ridden city is so ingrained that even as crime goes down, those numbers aren’t being recognized on a larger scale. In fact, he even has to defend his region’s stats at annual police conferences.

“People go, ‘Where are you from? St. Louis? Oh, well, you’ve got a real crime problem there.’ I go, ‘You know what? No. We don’t.’ That’s the perception,” he says. “We’re not trying to hide crime at all. What we’re trying to do is report it more accurately.”