Gateway to the Wild West
The accelerating collapse of St. Louis, the most violent city in America
St. Louis, famously known as the Gateway to the West, has become America’s reigning murder capital and a symbol of urban decay—trends accelerated in recent years by a soft-on-crime mayor and a social justice-minded prosecutor. Last month, the images of Mark and Patricia McCloskey, both armed, confronting protesters in front of their restored mansion in the historic Central West End district of downtown St. Louis previewed what a defund-the-police era may look like. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis, St. Louis, like other American cities, faced a crisis of public order. Businesses were burned to the ground, and looters roamed freely. Four St. Louis police officers were shot in one night. Civic unrest was so widespread that first responders took nearly 30 minutes to reach a 7-Eleven set aflame by rioters. The city’s elected leaders have seemingly abandoned the police.
St. Louis’s current condition reflects a decades-long tumble from growth and prosperity to decline and disorder. Back in its heyday more than a century ago, St. Louis simultaneously hosted the World’s Fair and the summer Olympics. In the later twentieth century, it remained a thriving center for business and culture. While the city retains elite universities and a handful of Fortune 500 companies, its population is less than half its mid-twentieth-century peak, and its crime rate consistently places it within the top-ten most homicidal metropolises in the world. Many large companies are looking to relocate from the area, and city residents have accepted that violent crime is now a part of daily life. Nationally, the region’s civic standing has dramatically eroded, making headlines mostly for bad news, especially, in recent years, high-profile police officer shootings—most notably the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, a small jurisdiction within St. Louis County.
Over the past four years, violent crime in St. Louis has skyrocketed, rivaling record-high levels spanning from the 1970s through the 1990s. In 2019, the city recorded 3,044 burglaries, 2,998 vehicle thefts, 349 car-jackings, and 265 sexual assaults. As of July 15, St. Louis, with only 300,000 people, has logged 119 homicides, which translates to an annualized rate of more than 70 murders per 100,000. Over the July 4 weekend, four children in north St. Louis were shot within one hour, in three separate incidents; the youngest of the victims was a four-year-old boy struck in the head by a stray bullet. Last week, former Missouri governor Eric Greitens rendered first aid to two young men riddled with dozens of bullets near the campus of St. Louis University. Violent crime is so ubiquitous that the city is considering surveillance planes to combat it.
With a situation this grim, the city desperately needs competent and determined crime-fighters, but St. Louis Circuit Attorney (chief prosecutor) Kimberly Gardner remains focused not on law and order but on social justice—and on bizarre self-aggrandizement. During her short tenure, the circuit attorney’s office has had more than 100 percent turnover, the equivalent of losing 470 years of collective experience. In January 2020, Gardner filed a federal civil rights suit against the City of St. Louis, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, and the St. Louis police union, alleging a racist conspiracy to oust her from office, in violation of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. Gardner soon appeared on PBS to declare St. Louis “ground zero” for criminal-justice reform efforts and likened any attempt to hold her accountable to a “modern-day night ride.”
Most crimes referred to Gardner’s office for prosecution are not charged, and conviction rates are falling. According to the SLMPD, Gardner charged only 1,641 of the 7,045 felonies referred for prosecution in 2019. Of those charged, records show just 54 percent of cases resulted in a guilty verdict, in contrast with the 84.5 percent conviction rate that prosecutors achieved in Missouri’s largest city, Kansas City, last year.
The crime wave has not spared St. Louis’s wealthier neighborhoods. The affluent and progressive Central West End neighborhood has witnessed a series of high-profile violent incidents. In 2015, a St. Louis police sergeant was shot outside a local coffee spot frequented by Washington University students. In 2016, Missouri’s former first lady was robbed at gun point outside a popular restaurant. Mayor Lyda Krewson shouldn’t need reminders that the crime problem can penetrate even comfortable enclaves. In 1995, she watched her first husband get shot lethally in the neck during an attempted car-jacking and robbery.
Days before the incident at the McCloskey residence, Krewson had publicly revealed the names and addresses of advocates calling for defunding the police department, which provoked city-wide outrage and drew bipartisan calls for the mayor’s resignation. The protesters with whom the McCloskeys clashed in late June were marching to Krewson’s house nearby; more recently, a mob returned to tear down the police barricade protecting her residence. The McCloskeys have now been charged with unlawful use of a weapon, as Gardner remains more focused on headline-grabbing cases than on quelling the city’s crime epidemic.
The McCloskeys were trying, they said, to protect their home. Whatever one thinks of their methods, their home and neighborhood remain relatively safe. The same cannot be said of St. Louis.
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