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St. Louis mayoral candidates on how they would address violent crime

Candidates Andrew Jones, Tishaura Jones, Lewis Reed and Cara Spencer lay out their plans for addressing violent crime

ST. LOUIS — Civilians conducting traffic stops?

More police officers, not fewer, in St. Louis?

Less money for the police department’s budget and more for social service programs?

Depending on how St. Louis residents vote at the polls Tuesday, some of those scenarios could come true.

The four candidates vying to become St. Louis’ next mayor agree crime is the number one issue facing the city – but they differ in how they would tackle the problem.

Each candidate sat down for interviews with 5 On Your Side political editor Casey Nolen.

None had answers about how they would address the problems specifically, but had different philosophical approaches to discuss.

The following is a Q&A Nolen had with each candidate, and how they explained they would address crime and policing in the country’s most dangerous city if elected.

Andrew Jones

Andrew Jones: Well, certainly the number one problem for the City of St Louis beyond the negative PR is the homicide rate, the violent crime rate for the City of St Louis that currently puts a black eye on the city and it currently prohibits us from any type of economic efficiencies and effectiveness and growth. And I would like to overemphasize the fact that it's the homicide rates, with the violence that is the problem. We know that over 80% of those homicides are committed by a very small number group of people that are associated with gangs and narcotics and the violence associated with it.

And you only have less than 1% of the population, doing so, and you have the expertise in the men and women in blue who can get rid of those violent criminals, we should dispatch them, let use their areas of expertise, so we can get that problem solved so we can move on to the economic development and all the others that turn this ship around.

Casey Nolen: Why the emphasis on the homicide? Of course, that is terrible, the loss of life, I don't mean to downplay that, but I'm wondering if there's more underneath what you're saying there. Is the city otherwise relatively safe, other than that number that really stands out nationally? Tell me why you're emphasizing that particular statistic.

Andrew Jones: Because at my job, my work is that we deliver power, electrical power at 99.9999% rate. If the lights blink, everyone gets upset and we know where the real issues and challenges are. I’m submitting that crime has to be separated out and segmented accordingly.

When you have eight out of 10 of the homicides, and that's all we hear about from Michael Niedorff at Centene and he won't bring a second phase, because he's terrified his prospective employees are terrified to move here. And everyone's lamenting about the homicides and we know it's a small number of people who are doing it, and they're committing the most of it, this is where you start.

Casey Nolen: Is there something that, in city government or City Hall, that you would specifically like to change? Is there someone who is not currently a part of that system?

Andrew Jones: My primary thing again is the lack of leadership that leads us down this direction where we're not getting any effective policing done. We're blaming the police. When we get that taken care of, with the proper leadership, and I think some people underestimate what leadership does or the lack thereof. It puts us in a position where we can be effective in what we do in our discharge of duties and protecting our citizens, so that we can move forward and be prosperous and be the civic beacon, that we need to be.

But we can't do anything until we eliminate this very focused problem, and if you don't do that everything else is for naught.

Casey Nolen: Do we need more police officers? Do we have enough? What do you think about the staffing of our department?

Andrew Jones: The staffing, believe it or not, is something that's been very critical across the board. We don't have enough police, but then we have people who want to take away the funding for police. This is a contradiction in and of itself. We have to be consistent. We have to be congruent. We have to be logical in our assessments and certainly what we want to do is make the determination that we are adequately funded, we want to certainly ensure that we are at the effective rate of manpower.

The most important thing out of all of it, we can be a lean, mean fighting machine, but we also want to make sure that our leadership deploys our police to do their job effectively and to stand out front and to mitigate against all the negative PR that wants to scapegoat our police and blame our police when I believe the problem is the lack of leadership. That's the problem and we can effectively do that under my administration.

Casey Nolen: Some of your opponents talk about not so much the funding, but redirecting some resources to other services like, whether it be social workers or other mental health resources that certain calls that fall in the lap of our police because we don't have other services. They would argue that they would take some money to more adequately respond to certain calls that are more of a social call than they are a crime call. What do you make of that? 

They also talk about job programs and things like that they believe would reduce crime. Overall, do you think there are, what people sometimes refer to as these wraparound services and buzzwords like that? Or do you think it's more of an issue that can be handled through the department, as it is?

Andrew Jones: Mostly what you're hearing is a play on words and I'm very candid in what I say. They don't have a real solution, therefore, they throw these monikers out here, throw it against the wall and then it becomes the buzzwords, hot trends for the day, but it does nothing about solving the real problems that exist.

And this is the perpetuation of the problems that forced me to run. I'm looking at this stuff and saying, ‘Oh my God, none of this stuff is applicable. It doesn't work and we have to have someone do something about it, who is reasonable.’

You have to be logical in the way you approach those problems and you mitigate against them, so we can move on, but now what we do is, we have the dog chasing his tail and nothing gets done. And we keep having politicians disguise it as a new concept, but they're the same thing. They just put a dress on it, put lipstick on it and it's a pig, but they want to call it a woman. It doesn't work across the board, and what we want to do is address those issues because re-envisioning police is the new buzz term.

Redirecting funding is again, a play on words, they want to redefine police. I’m saying they do a phenomenal job and I recognize what they do. What they're talking about doesn't work one iota …The fact is that we will provide those peripheral services. The police provide community policing like James Wilson's broken windows concepts because police want to effectively do their jobs … They just need to be allowed to do their jobs and have someone out front that will hold people accountable when they're wrong, cheer them when they're right and we can drive efficiencies and effectiveness, now and we turn the city around.

Tishaura Jones

Tishaura Jones: I would say the number one issue facing the city of St Louis right now is our crime and public safety problem. And how I would address it is a community-first approach to public safety and that's simply putting the public back in public safety and bringing everyone to the table because our problems on crime and public safety don't stop at King Boulevard or the Mississippi River.

We have to approach it as a region, and that means using my existing relationships with County Executive Sam Page and St Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell and our current Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner to bring all of the necessary players to the table that's faith-based, that's civic, that's corporate, that's philanthropic and making sure that we adopt the mantra that we are our brother's keeper. Our problems and our destinies are linked, and we have to approach them as such because we didn't get into this overnight, or by ourselves, we won't get out of this overnight or by ourselves.

We need to declare gun violence as a public health crisis and address it as such, just as how we've addressed this current pandemic. We need to have that same laser-focused attitude of looking at the root causes like we did with the pandemic, we need to address that same sort of root cause, focus on gun violence and public safety.

Casey Nolen: There might be some people who live in more high crime areas of the city who would agree with that, in the broader picture, but might want something more immediate. Right now, they might want more police officers on their block. Is there anything in the nearer term, or is that more near term that I'm understanding it.

Tishaura Jones: I think, is more near term than people think. They say that, ‘Oh well, yeah that's good and, yes, we agree with that,’ but once we adapt the focus of looking at the root causes, then that is looking at the 20% of the people who caused 80% of the problems.

When Chief Hayden had a rectangle or a sort of polygon that talked about where crime was located, he was right, the crime was located in those areas, but our approach didn't have to be that same old arrest and incarcerate model. It's also bringing other tools and resources to the table. 

What are the issues affecting that community? And how do we bring those resources to the table? Is it mental health resources? Is it childcare? Is it homelessness? Is it substance abuse and making sure that we are deploying the right professionals to the right call when we get calls in those neighborhoods? So it's not about just arresting and incarcerating, it is it's about providing the resources that our communities need in order to not just survive, but to thrive.

Casey Nolen: Do you think we need more police officers? Fewer police officers?

Tishaura Jones: I think we have enough. Honestly, I feel like we have enough and I think that we need to look at how our resources are deployed. The recent Teneo report talked about how there are certain jobs within our current police department that don't have to be done by licensed officers and could be done by civilians.

We've seen in other cities like Berkeley, California, where they have deployed regular citizens to do traffic stops instead of licensed officers, so again, you know, how are we deploying our current resources? And we need to take a look at that from top to bottom.

Casey Nolen: Just for those who might not know, the report you're talking about was commissioned and paid for by private dollars and it looked at both the city and the county.

Tishaura Jones: Yes, exactly.

Casey Nolen: That's interesting that you bring up the way they're doing things in other cities. Are there things other cities are doing better than St. Louis that you think we should be looking at and possibly adopting, and, if so, what?

Tishaura Jones: Like I said, the deploying civilian resources to different calls is definitely something we should be looking at. Focused deterrence was one program in Oakland, California where they saw a marked decrease in crime. So we should be looking at that, but I don't think that we should be having a discussion about just one solution. It's not just one solution. It’s not just Cure Violence, it’s not just focused deterrence, is not just body cameras, it’s how are we combining all of those in addition to making sure that we provide an environment where people can thrive, not just survive. 

So how are we connecting people to jobs, good-paying jobs where they can provide for their families? How are we also investing in neighborhood development where people leave their homes in the morning, and the first thing that they see isn't a dilapidated building or buildings that are falling down around them? Or vacant lots that aren't being built up? 

Just like investment in the central corridor and downtown was deliberate and intentional, disinvestment in parts of north St. Louis and south St. Louis was deliberate and intentional, so we should not be surprised that the population is leaving these areas. That our schools are closing because we don't have as many people living in St. Louis city proper as we've had in recent years. We have been on a consistent population loss since the turn of the century.

Watch the candidates debate in the video player below:

Lewis Reed

Casey Nolen: What is the number one issue facing St. Louis and what specifically would you do about it if you were elected?

Lewis Reed: The number one issue facing St. Louis is public safety, violent crimes and murder, those are the absolute number one issue for the City of St. Louis. We know that eventually we're going to get through COVID…But after all of that, we’re going to be left with the original health care crisis that we had in the City of St. Louis and that is violent crime and that's murder. So what we have to do to address the issues of murder and violent crime is, No. 1, people need to understand that it is a very complex issue to get your arms around so you have to attack it from a whole bunch of different areas…You have to have an effective policing apparatus and well-funded well-trained police and apparatus in place and on the back end, you have to have all those other services that help for re-entry programs and things of that nature, so that people don't re-enter a life of crime.

When you look at some of the things we've put in place we began to lay the groundwork, like a year ago, last year we passed an ordinance that requires the city to have in place a comprehensive public safety plan and it requires the public safety director to work with various different departments and the community too and to look at best practices across the across the country and the city will be required to put that plan in place…So that's a very important piece.

To get to address some of the issues that are pointed out by the police department, the courts and everyone in that whole line of law enforcement, commonly what they say about the open murders, they say that people don't come forward and it's hard to get information from people…To address that one of the things that we put in place was the Justice for Families Fund. We started that at the end of the year, this will be the actually the first year for it and the Justice for Families Fund.

Helps to put in funding for people who want to come forward with information totally in anonymous fashion, there's nothing tracked by it, but it allows you to get information that you didn't have before.

For people that would show up and testify in court, we need to add more money too for witness protection, relocation efforts all of those sorts of things, and we need to have money in place for investigative units so that our investigative units, they have all of the support they need. We're told federal law enforcement, state and federal agencies can help us really truly investigate some of these open cases and any other tools and training that our local law enforcement needs to shore up that so that we can effectively and efficiently investigate all of the open murder cases. The reason why that's so important, Casey, is because on an average year, we only close on about 30% of the open murder cases and some years we're only closing 10% of them, I mean that's mind boggling when you think about that number, so if we're only closing on 10% of them that means 90% of the murder cases, if they were all committed by different people, that's 90% of the people who committed murders in the City of St. Louis never will have to pay a price for and that's something that we cannot tolerate.

What other cities have done to increase the closure rate dramatically, they've added funds for information that people would give in anonymous fashion to help with information leading to the arrest and incarceration of someone.

So we just put that fund in place and we will be pushing that out this year, making sure that it's advertised that people know it’s available, and they also know that they can come forward in anonymous fashion.

Casey Nolen: Don’t we do that enough in St. Louis, look at what other cities are doing and how valuable do you think that is?

Lewis Reed: I think that we absolutely should do that, especially when you're talking about public safety. People are tempted to reinvent the wheel and you're doomed to fail.

You have to go off of what other urban settings and the methodologies that they put in place in urban settings that have worked, right?

There is one thing I still really support, it is a collection of things that you have to deploy and they have to work all in unison.

That’s why we have Cure Violence that allows us to get out in front of the public safety issue. As you know, the biggest challenge we had with Cure Violence was the slow rollout. I mean we essentially lost a whole year so coming up this year will be the first year that we will be able to see the effects of it in some of the neighborhoods that it's working in.

But it needs to be broadened. I know in New York, it was a major component of what they did to really get their arms around the murder rate that was happening in New York City, so we need to follow that model. We know it works. There are areas in New York City that used to see shootings all the time and now they've gone a year without one shooting within those areas where Cure Violence exists they've seen more kids going on to get their GED and more parents coming out saying they've learned to become better parents, more people are employed and unemployment rates are dropping, so all of those things are resources that are delivered by that Cure Violence model, so it's absolutely essential that that's in place.

But, again, all of these components have to work together. You hear some people saying, ‘OK, we need to defund the police,’ and stuff and that's just not the answer.

Casey Nolen: When you see ‘Defund the police’ on a sign at a protest, what goes through your mind?

Lewis Reed: Some people, because of what we've seen with police shootings, you know African American men across the country, there is a mistrust of the police department, and rightfully so. When you see those things, it's hard not to.

But what’s absolutely essential to keep in mind is that although we know that there are some bad officers that operate outside of law, there is still a need to have a well-funded police department that operates within a city, I mean you have to have that. And you have to focus on cleaning up the bad actors, whether it's in a police department, whether it's in our planning divisions, whether it's in our housing divisions, or whether it's in our courts, we still have to have mechanisms in place to clean out the bad actors.

But we don't get rid of the whole system, because if you get rid of a whole system, and you have not changed the thing that allowed the bad actors to exist, you haven't changed a thing, because ultimately, that new system will still have the bad actors in it, so ultimately you have to put something in place that gets the bad actors out.

As the mayor, that's what I will do, I will focus on the issue and not take these approaches that won't serve the public at large.

Casey Nolen: Kind of a personal question, if you don't want to talk about that's OK, but when we talk about public safety, unfortunately, you have a personal story that too many people can relate to. But it strikes me that you don't really like talking about it too much, and I don't know if many people know it, not unlike Mayor Krewson who didn't really ever talk much about her husband being killed. I’m just curious to know if that's something you want people to know about, or if you're comfortable talking about it, and again if it's too personal, I don't mean to intrude on what I'm sure is a wound that never really heals.

Lewis Reed: It took me a while to come to grips with what was happening with me internally. But, when I had a chance to talk to someone about it, I understand it more now. My brother was my best friend. It wasn't just like a family member, that was my brother. We grew up sleeping in the same bed. There were nine of us kids.

But what they say is that you're transported right back to that moment.

And it took me a while to get used to because they said that's OK, because that's just part of it, even though it happened, a while ago for me. But I think the thing that keeps it so fresh for me is the job, and you know, I'm sitting with and being with all these families that are dealing with this and then you know my cousin, two years ago, when he lost his son here in the City of St. Louis, he was shot and burned and dumped and we're still trying to get some justice in that case.

And that's why I look at these open cases when we have, you know, 70% of the people who have murdered people that are just walking the streets, it just boggles my mind.

Our family never saw in Josh, my brother’s shooting, and now I look at my nephew, I mean nothing's happened in that case…And then people said well, ‘How come the kids in the City of St. Louis public schools are trailing behind every other place in the state?' Well, look at what's happening in their environments. This stuff is affecting them.

When you go in the classroom and say, ‘Raise your hand if you know somebody who's been shot and killed,’ by the time you finish half to three quarters of the classrooms’ hands are raised. That's affecting those kids. It affects adults. So we have to be absolutely committed to this to see that change and we will see a change in the city…

For the last 20 years I’ve helped cohost that annual vigil where we try to bring those families together for a healing moment, and you know, and for me, it's so difficult when I'm sitting in the pulpit and I'm just dreading having to get up and talk, because I know what they feel like. I know the loss and the hurt and the pain these families are going through…

Casey, had it not been for you and all the others who really shined a light on it, we wouldn't have been able to move Cure Violence because the system was resistant to that change. It took six years for me to get body cameras in place, even though we know it's going to begin to heal the divide that exists between law enforcement and the community. I've been trying for the last two almost three years to make smaller districts, and stop them from transferring officers between these districts because we're saying police officers aren't getting to the northern community, you're not giving them a chance to know their humanity.

The other thing is the data. This is astonishing. They say that on an average day like right now, you pick an hour of the day, there's only 54 officers on the streets at one time. That's it. There's only 54 officers patrolling the streets, at one time. It is shocking, it's shocking because of the way it's structured is very top heavy and we're going to have to change that.

So, when I hear people like, ‘We’ll defund the police,’ and everything I'm like, ‘Yeah, we have a lot of things that will change the dynamics of the city and defunding the police is not one of them.’

And some of these things they point to as a criminal justice reform, I'm saying, ‘No, that's not criminal justice reform.’ Criminal justice reform would be doing things that curtail all these things that led to this point. Criminal justice reform would be forcing new training through the police department and a use-of-force ordinance like the thing that we passed, working with the courts on bond reform. That's criminal justice reform, not getting rid of the police because you don't like them.

Cara Spencer

Cara Spencer: The number one issue by far is violent crime. 

We have got to address violence in our communities. If we don't, really, frankly, nothing else matters. So, if elected mayor, I will put in place a comprehensive, my 10-step plan, the first year. 

Look, we have to reach out to other cities. We are sticking out like a sore thumb, an anomaly in the nation for failing to address violence. And you know what? When I decided to run for mayor, I started reaching out, developing relationships with those professionals outside of St. Louis who've been successful in other cities that are dealing with this. And if elected mayor, I'll bring those practices and some of those people to St. Louis to help us join the rest of the nation in reducing violence. 

Casey Nolen: What would you tell people who say, ‘I love the idea of big plans, but what can you do for me now?’ I want to be, when it gets warm, feel safe sitting on my porch. In certain parts of town, people don't feel safe. 

Cara Spencer: We should be talking about violence from a two-pronged approach. We need to have long-term solutions that look at addressing the root cause of crime. And that includes mental health and conflict mediation and addressing the issue of poverty. But we've also got to address violence now. 

There's a great analogy about a man coming in with a gunshot wound. We've got to get this guy a job and get him a house so he doesn't come back to the hospital. But the reality is, if we don't stop the bleeding now, he's going to die. We have to approach violence here in St. Louis in the same way. 

That's why I'm going to bring in focused deterrence. It's a program that has been successful in cities across the nation, including Kansas City, Oakland, Boston. It was even successful here in a pilot program in 2012. 

Focused deterrence allows us to focus on that small number of individuals responsible for violence and help them turn their lives around right now, give them the tools to do that and frankly, are harsh when that doesn't work. 

It's a program that reduces recidivism immediately by connecting those resources and coordinating them. And it does sound costly. There is a cost associated with it, but it's very low compared to other programs. It's very cost-effective. And most importantly, it's effective immediately. 

Casey Nolen: We have a unique, or a first-time, at least in modern history, situation for this election where we will not have Democrat and Republican labels with the candidates. But at the same time, I don't think you're shy about claiming kind of a progressive banner. Sometimes progressives say they want to defund the police. Do you think we should defund our police department? What does that mean to you and should we do it? 

Cara Spencer: Look, I mean, I think it's clear that we cannot police our way out of this. We have more police per capita than almost any major city in the United States. And yet we still have the number one homicide rate. But what isn't always clear is that we can't do this without police. 

When I had a gun to my head, it was terrifying. I wouldn't be here if it weren't for police responding immediately to that act of horrendous violence. In the same way, we need law enforcement to respond when our house is getting burglarized and there's a sexual or violent assault of some kind and when a woman is gunned down and shot, murdered in front of her kids in front of her house, like what happened just a few blocks from my house a couple of weeks ago. We have to have law enforcement that has the tools. 

We have to work to address those root causes. But in the meantime, we have to make sure that our law enforcement is equipped to answer, and that includes being able to respond and receive those calls for emergency services. It is nothing short of, it's inexcusable that about 30% of our 911 calls right now are being answered by a recording. We need to get those so our residents that need emergency services can reliably summon them through a 911 system that's fully functional.

I represent a district for which I am the distinct and extreme minority. The 20th Ward is overwhelmingly people of color and has an income level much, much lower than the city average, which, as we know, is already much lower than the regional average. And so what I find here is that there's sometimes is that disconnect. And I always lean onto the community I represent. And that's where I don't always feel exactly aligned with the progressive way of thinking. I tend to really lean onto the citizens and what they want. And I have found that my community, the community I represent, does want unwaveringly to heal the divide between our police and our community.

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