Violent crime down, homicides up in Missouri

Andrew Hurley takes notes at a crime scene setup Thursday, April 19, 2018. He was one of nearly 100 students from across the state to attend training at the Missouri Highway Patrol training facility on the grounds of the Ike Skelton Training Site. Sgt. Erik Eidson of the patrol is pictured with Hurley, who attends Herndon Career Center in Raytown.
Andrew Hurley takes notes at a crime scene setup Thursday, April 19, 2018. He was one of nearly 100 students from across the state to attend training at the Missouri Highway Patrol training facility on the grounds of the Ike Skelton Training Site. Sgt. Erik Eidson of the patrol is pictured with Hurley, who attends Herndon Career Center in Raytown.

Violent crime has decreased in many parts of Missouri this year, according to data published last week by Gov. Mike Parson's administration - and that fits national crime trends.

While that may seem to contradict Parson's focus this summer on calling state legislators together to address violent crime, there are other contradictions to consider. Even as violent and other crimes have decreased, the number of homicides to date has significantly increased over the same time period last year, and that also fits with national trends.

"The governor intends to continue to engage with law enforcement officials from around the state to craft legislative priorities intended to address this issue and adapt to the changing landscape," Parson's communications director told the News Tribune last week. "Much work still needs to be done to ensure our law enforcement officers have the tools they need to combat violent crime and reduce homicides rates, and the governor remains committed to that effort."

Expanded online data dashboards tracking the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Missouri, published last week by Parson's administration, included heatmaps of crime rates in the state's counties, comparing January through May 2019 with January through May 2020.

Much of the state, including Mid-Missouri, saw significant decreases in violent crime rates in the first five months of 2020 compared to the same time last year: Cole County, down 27.6 percent; Callaway County, down 49.3 percent; Miller County, down 31.8 percent; Moniteau County, down 75 percent; Morgan County, down 84.3 percent.

Osage County showed no change, and Boone County saw an increase in its violent crime rate of 14.1 percent.

Some rural counties had much more drastic increases in their violent crime rates to date - a 500 percent increase in far northeastern Clark County; a 400 percent increase in Iron County; a 200 percent increase in Monroe County; a 160 percent increase in Macon County; 150 percent increase in Dallas County; and 100 percent increases in far northwestern Atchison County, southern Stone and Ripley counties, and western St. Clair County.

The counties home to much of Missouri's largest cities, however, were among those that saw significant decreases in crime rates: Jackson County (Kansas City), down 23.4 percent; Clay County (Kansas City), down 10 percent; St. Louis City, down 7 percent; St. Louis County, down 12.7 percent; and Greene County (Springfield), down 37.2 percent.

Even with huge reported increases, rural counties' violent crime rates - such as Clark County's 88.3 crimes per 100,000 people, or Iron County's 49.4 crimes per 100,000 people - are still vastly lower than in major metropolitan areas, such as Jackson County's rate of 386.9 per 100,000 people or St. Louis City's rate of 664.4 per 100,000 people.

The Parson administration's online data did not immediately define what a violent crime is. The FBI's definition for its Uniform Crime Reporting Program includes four violent crime offenses: murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

Comparing January through May 2020 with January through May 2019, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department reported rape was down 5.4 percent, robbery down 20 percent and aggravated assault down 2.7 percent.

Within robberies, business robberies were down 32.9 percent, and carjackings and highway robberies were each down more than 21 percent.

Homicides, at the end of May, had not increased over the same time period last year, standing at a total of 70.

What's apparent is that when people stayed home and businesses closed in the spring because of the pandemic, reported crime generally went down.

In major cities all over the U.S. - especially in places including New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit and Atlanta - violent crime dropped in March as the pandemic took hold, according to data from a city crime statistics project by the University of Pennsylvania.

The FBI confirmed that trend last month. Looking at data from more than 12,000 law enforcement agencies from January through June 2020, versus the first six months of 2019, the number of rapes reported fell 17.8 percent, and robbery was down 7.1 percent.

The same was true of many property crimes. St. Louis police data showed that between January and May, burglaries fell 12 percent compared to last year - including a more than 29 percent drop in daytime burglaries, though less frequent nighttime burglaries also increased more than 29 percent.

Pickpocketing and purse snatching fell, as did bicycle thefts and thefts from buildings. Larcenies and vehicle thefts were still up overall - 6.2 percent and 1.8 percent, respectively - largely owing to there being more thefts from and of vehicles, or of vehicle parts.

The Council on Criminal Justice - a nonpartisan criminal justice think tank - concluded in a report published last month, prepared by a professor and graduate research assistant from the University of Missouri-St. Louis: "The timing of the declines in residential burglaries, larcenies, and drug offenses coincided with the stay-at-home mandates and business closings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Quarantines reduced residential burglary. When businesses are closed, there is no shoplifting."

The Council on Criminal Justice's report looked at crime data through August for 10 offenses in 27 U.S. cities, including St. Louis.

Though UPenn's project shows violent crime rates in many cities are still less than what they were before the pandemic took hold in March, a temporary peace did not last coming into the summer for some of the most brutal crimes.

When Gov. Parson in July announced a special legislative session to address violent crime, he cited a 35 percent increase in homicides in Kansas City compared to last year and a more than 31 percent increase in St. Louis.

By the end of August - the most recent report available - St. Louis had experienced a 36 percent increase in the number of homicides to date, compared to the same time period last year.

That meant an increase of 49 individual people killed above the toll to date in 2019. That also meant that since the end of May 2020, 115 people had been killed.

The numbers of rapes and robberies were still down - rapes by more than twice as much as they had been at the end of May - but whereas aggravated assault had been down 2.7 percent by the end of May, by the end of August it as up 9.5 percent.

The Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department's homicide data showed by Friday there had been 146 homicides, compared to 148 in all of 2019.

Once again, that's in line with what law enforcement have been seeing across the country. In the first six months of the year, murders and nonnegligent manslaughters were up 14.8 percent nationally, and aggravated assaults were up 4.6 percent, according to the FBI.

The Council on Criminal Justice's report found that between June and August in the cities examined, homicides were up 53 percent over the same months in 2019 and aggravated assaults were up 14 percent.

While violent crime overall in the cores of Missouri's major cities decreased this year - despite the increases in homicides - the Parson administration's data also showed rates in some nearby suburbs and outlying parts of cities increased: up 35.7 percent in Platte County (Kansas City); and near St. Louis, violent crime rates were up 33.5 percent in St. Charles County and 35 percent in Jefferson County.

Looking at St. Louis police data, homicides have tended to increase in summertime anyway. Twenty of the 49 killings above last year's homicides to date at the end of August there also occurred in two specific neighborhoods - 10 more killings each in Jeff Vanderlou and Walnut Park West.

KCPD's homicide data show nearly all killings there are done with a firearm - most often a handgun. Firearm sales spiked across Missouri and the country this year as the pandemic took hold, with background checks in Missouri climbing 50 percent in March compared to last year, the Missouri News Service reported in April.

The Council on Criminal Justice concluded in its report that while gun assaults rose during the summer, the increase was not significantly greater than in other years.

The number of arrests made in Missouri has fallen each year since 2017, according to the Parson administration's data - though that also mirrors declining violent and property crime rates overall in the state, according to the FBI.

The state's property crime rate has fallen almost every year since 2009 and was down last year more than 21 percent since 2009.

The state's violent crime rate last year was up less than 1 percent since 2009 - though that was continuing to come down from a large spike between a low in 2013 and a peak in 2017, a trend Missouri's homicide rate mirrored.

Missouri's property and violent crime rates have remained significantly above the national averages, even as they tend to mirror national trends in increases and decreases.

Arrests in the state were already slightly down at the beginning of this year, but they dropped a lot through April at the height of pandemic shutdowns.

Arrests picked up some in May - aligning with the start of economic reopening and the start of mass protests against police violence and racial injustice that in some instances were followed by crimes against property and people. But then arrests continued to fall over the summer, with 5,189 arrests made in July compared to 18,351 the previous July.

Meanwhile, at least in Kansas City, officers' homicide case clearance rate had improved somewhat - from 43 percent of 2019 homicides having been solved and cleared by the end of year, compared to 48 percent of 2020's homicides having been solved and cleared, as of Friday.

The UMSL researchers who prepared the Council on Criminal Justice's report planned to update their report two more times this year. "By then, we may be able to draw stronger conclusions about the sources of changes in violent crime in our cities," they wrote.

The researchers added, "Subduing the COVID-19 epidemic also remains a necessary condition for reducing violence. The ability of the police to prevent and investigate crimes is greatly diminished by social distancing requirements. Social distancing also impedes the anti-violence efforts of street outreach workers by preventing them from engaging directly with those at the highest risk for violence."

The researchers also noted of protesters' demands this year: "It will not be easy to translate protest ideals into workable public policy, but doing so is essential for improving the relationship between the police and the communities they serve and achieving durable reductions in urban violence."