ST. LOUIS — Mount Exodus, as it’s known around St. Louis Police headquarters, is growing.
It’s the pile of police uniforms officers turn in when they leave the department.
A police source sent me a snapshot of it in January of this year.
It was about seven feet high and about 10 feet wide.
Another source sent me a picture taken this week.
It has more than doubled, now blocking some of the doorways around it.
But whether or not the growing mountain of uniforms is a symbol of a department in desperate need of new blood or nothing to be concerned about depends on who you ask.
Mayor Tishaura Jones said the city has plenty of officers. She cites a 2020 study, which concluded the department has more officers per capita when compared to other similar-sized cities, and said officers just need to be redeployed better.
Her Public Safety Director Dan Isom, who served as chief of the department from 2008 to 2013, agreed.
“We have enough officers, we need to do a better job of retaining and recruiting them,” Isom said.
The messaging doesn’t match internally.
In an email, Interim Police Chief Michael Sack sent to his officers on Oct. 6, the subject line was: “Dept. Staffing.”
Sack told the police department it had 905 police officers and detectives on Oct. 4, 2021.
As of Oct. 3 this year, Sack said the department is down to 811.
That’s 94 fewer officers and detectives.
“This puts a burden on us to perform our duties with fewer officers,” he wrote. “We must pay attention to staffing in the line platoons and on squads. No squad should have fewer than five officers with the optimum number being seven officers. I wish I could give you more, but this is the reality.
“I will be working with Operational Planning to ensure that we don't understaff the line platoons and on-duty specialized units, such as Homicide and Sex Crime/Child Abuse, when details are written. I understand the importance of providing security for major events such as Mardi Gras and Fair St. Louis, but be assured, we will not assign more than we can afford to lose in the line platoons and on-duty specialized units.
“In light of the losses we have been experiencing, there continues to be a need to staff some positions and to fill long-vacant jobs. For example, the three area station positions have been detached sergeants. These positions have been posted, as well as some in other specialized assignments. These positions are to clean up reassigned duties, consolidate work, and accurately portray where people are working.
“I am working hard to find ways to put more officers on the line platoons. These officers and sergeants provide a great service to our community and they need the support of all of us to help them do their jobs effectively and safely.
“I have a great deal of respect for each of you. Thank you for everything you do. It is deeply appreciated.”
St. Louis Police Officers Association President Jay Schroeder met with the Public Safety Committee Wednesday.
“We’re reaching critical mass,” he said.
He threw out some numbers.
Since 2017, 819 policemen have left the department, according to the St. Louis Police Pension Board.
It breaks down like this:
So far this year, 159 officers have left, according to the pension system.
That’s a lot of uniforms to add to the pile.
“That number coincides with the drastic pay increase that St. Louis County and other departments have received year to date,” he said.
In addition to those numbers, Schroeder said the department has 15 to 20 officers on terminal leave, meaning they’re burning through vacation time on their way to retirement.
Some of the uniforms on Mt. Exodus belong to officers who have been hired within that five-year period as well.
In all, St. Louis has hired 656 officers since 2017, according to Mayor Tishaura Jones’ Office.
That’s a negative balance of 163 officers.
The St. Louis Police Department also gave me some numbers to show the staffing trends during the same time frame. They differ slightly from the union's numbers, but not by much:
1,302 authorized strength
1,187 total officers
122 new hires
1,307 authorized strength
1,192 total officers
133 new hires
1,328 authorized strength
1,177 total officers
176 new hires
1,340 authorized officers
1,205 total officers
57 new hires
1,348 authorized officers
1,198 total officers
97 new hires
2022 so far:
1,224 authorized officers
71 new hires
So who is right when it comes to answering whether the city has enough officers?
The police union that obviously has the interests of its members in mind when asking for more money and resources?
Or the mayor and her administration, who want the public to have confidence in their decision-making about those resources?
One of my go-to experts when it comes to St. Louis police issues and statistics is Richard Rosenfeld.
His formal title is Distinguished Curator Professor Emeritus of Criminology and Criminal Justice for the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
I call him the godfather of crime stats for short.
He’s one of the most widely quoted experts in the country when it comes to studying what drives crime and how policing affects it.
St. Louis is his home and its department is oftentimes his research muse.
Through the years, he has told me St. Louis has more officers than other cities per capita.
I have often quoted him whenever political or union leaders say the department is understaffed.
I asked him that same question this week: Does St. Louis have enough police officers?
“I think the city could use more officers,” he said. “You have to measure officer strength not just per population, but per number of crimes.
“And when you do that St. Louis is not in such a favorable position.”
Ideally, Rosenfeld said the department should have 1,300 officers.
The police department’s spokesman said on Sept. 26, the department had 1,049 commissioned employees.
As of Monday, that number dropped to 1,038.
As of Sept. 26, the police department’s spokesman said it had hired 71 new employees and 154 had ended their employment.
Rosenfeld says just boosting the number of officers alone won’t help reduce crime in the city.
“We have to make sure the additional officers are well-trained and actually out on patrol as opposed to sitting behind a desk, and deployed in ways that are most effective in ways that prevent crime,” he said. “We need to be back to the strength we were six or seven years ago.”
Rosenfeld said he’s familiar with the 2020 study the mayor has cited when answering whether she believes the department is adequately staffed.
“They used officers per capita as the measure,” Rosenfeld said. “That’s not a silly measure, but I don’t think it’s the only one that matters.
“When you look at actual feet on the ground, wheels on the ground, the existing number of officers out on patrol or in special units that are not sitting behind a desk is stretched very thin,” he said. “Better deployment of our city officers is needed, but I also believe the city could use a couple of hundred additional officers easily.
“Divide the number of officers by the city’s population and we don’t look all that bad, if you, however, compare the number of officers to the number of serious crimes, then our position deteriorates. I really think the latter is in many ways a more important metric than simply officers over population.”
I told him about Mount Exodus.
He shook his head in disappointment.