Rewriting a history of crime: Police propose combining crime statistics from St. Louis County, city

St. Louis may no longer be one of America’s most dangerous cities, if two local police chiefs get their way with the numbers.

In April, the FBI plans to open conversations on a proposal to merge crime statistics from the St. Louis County and Metropolitan Police Departments to reflect local crime more regionally, allowing a more direct comparison to other large cities but through a process that works contrary to the typical crime reporting process.

After a particularly bad meeting last spring with the Regional Business Council, made up of the CEOs of the region’s 100 largest companies, Chief of Police Sam Dotson and then-Chief Tim Fitch came up with a way to solve St. Louis’ yearly placement among the nation’s most dangerous cities: combining statistics to dilute the numbers.

As a Time Magazine headline put it last fall, “Police Have a Plan to Deal With St. Louis’ Crime Rate: Play With the Numbers.” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s editorial board blasted the plan as a “statistical shell game,” calling it a “silly” attempt to boost self-esteem. But the chiefs consider the criticism unfair.

“It’s not to mask any of the numbers,” Dotson said. “It is…to accurately portray our region.”

Speaking to several dozen students and community members in a St. Louis Up Close discussion put on by the Gephardt Institute for Public Service last month, Dotson said that St. Louis’ crime rate is falling but that its crime ranking is not representative of that fact.

“If St. Louis is to really address the systemic problems that we have—education, chronic unemployment, wages, everything—we need development in the region,” Dotson said.

St. Louis’ technical city limits are drawn around a 66.2-square-mile area, making the city tiny compared to generally similar metropolitan areas like Kansas City (319 square miles) and Memphis (324 square miles) that have drawn their lines further out. Dotson said that comparing dissimilar cities makes St. Louis look far worse than it actually is and that the comparison has negative ramifications for the city’s image.

By combining statistics, the number of crimes per capita would decrease substantially; the police chiefs estimate that St. Louis would drop from consistently appearing in top 10 lists and fall to the 30s or 40s, a ranking that would decrease such adverse effects on the region.

Specifically, they are looking to have their two departments report statistics that would cover the city and unincorporated parts of the county—those which do not have municipal police departments (as opposed to places such as Brentwood or Clayton) but are under the jurisdiction of county police.

“There are no other metropolitan areas that report crime together like I’m suggesting,” Fitch, who retired at the end of last year, said. “But there are some that have completely merged [departments] together, and now they’re reaping the benefits.”

St. Louis is not considering such a drastic solution, though the benefits for recombining the city and county, separated in 1876 to allow the nation’s then-fourth-largest city to run itself, look increasingly appealing.

They submitted a formal proposal to combine statistics last fall, and the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program will be discussing it in April. It could then move forward to a vote in fall 2014, according to Lt. John Holtz, who works with the UCR.

Criminology professor Richard Rosenfeld at the University of Missouri–St. Louis helped Dotson and Fitch draft the proposal, arguing that while atypical, it offers the fairest solution. That said, he doesn’t expect it to materialize.

“I think it’s a long shot,” Rosenfeld conceded. “But I’ll tell you, I think there’s value in the public discussion [of] the proposal itself…It raises the level of public understanding and public debate.”

Central to that understanding, Rosenfeld said, is the realization that crime does not obey city boundaries and that the city a person lives in represents a minor factor as far as personal safety.

“The city somebody lives in tells you next to nothing about their risk for crime,” he said. “Difference across neighborhoods in crime within cities far surpass differences between cities.”

While the Washington University Police Department has not been centrally involved in the discussions, Chief of Police Don Strom said he agrees that the statistics offer an inaccurate representation of local safety.

“It’s always interesting to me that even when I have this question raised by parents and then talk to them about their experiences here, they often talk about how safe they feel,” Strom said. “They’ve heard the stories from the statistical reports, and they haven’t had the time to have someone explain to them that it doesn’t really reflect the crime in the region.”

A representative from the FBI’s UCR subcommittee and current St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar were not offering comments on the topic. A spokesperson at Belmar’s office said he is being briefed further on it in the coming week.

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