ST. LOUIS — Last year was the deadliest in a dozen years in St. Louis, despite a slowdown in homicides after the appointment of a new police chief in October.
And in Kansas City, the 2008 killing toll nearly broke a record for the most so far this decade.
St. Louis ended the year with 167 homicides, the highest number since 204 people were killed in 1995. Kansas City saw 126 slayings, just one shy of the 127 in 2005 — the most for any year this decade.
Some say the current economic troubles are contributing to the violence.
"Homicides do tend to go up in an economic downturn," said University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist Richard Rosenfeld. "This is clearly a major economic downturn. Using the past as a prologue, we should be expecting increases in crime."
Certainly, underlying social conditions such as poor family functioning and parenting figure into crime, Rosenfeld said. But they're a constant and the poor economy is what is different now, he said.
Economic downturns generate more social tension that can turn violent, Rosenfeld said. Bad times also increase the demand for stolen goods by low-income consumers who can afford only the underground economy, he said, and conflicts over price and quality of those goods between buyers and sellers often are settled with violence.
Still below the records
As bad as it is, the 2008 homicide number for St. Louis was 100 fewer than the all-time high of 267 slayings in 1993. The Kansas City total was 27 fewer than the record 153 homicides in 1993.
Kansas City police Maj. Anthony Ell said the community should be alarmed anytime the homicide rate surpasses or nears 100, which has happened in Kansas City each of the last six years. The city had 94 homicides in 2007.
"We continue to hit that century mark with homicides," said Ell, the commander of the violent crimes division. "It's troubling to see."
St. Louis has experienced much of the same, except for 2003, when the city had 74 slayings. The city had 138 homicides in 2007.
Domestic homicides involving lethal weapons have risen, said St. Louis police Lt. Col. Tim Reagan. Homicides committed with assault rifles — high-capacity weapons capable of firing a large number of bullets without reloading — are seeing a spike, too, Reagan said.
"This is a new phenomenon for us," he said, and a disturbing one.
"The difference between a homicide and an assault is a centimeter," Reagan said, referring to a bullet's proximity to the heart.
Part of the mystery
What remains something of a puzzle is crimes typically related to homicides are not up as well.
Rosenfeld said St. Louis, Kansas City and New York each had spikes in homicides in 2008 but no corresponding increase in the related crimes of armed robbery and gun assaults.
It may be that the other crimes are not reported as reliably as homicide, or that hospital trauma units are failing to stop a serious assault from becoming a murder, he said.
Both St. Louis and Kansas City got an early jump on the violence before the killings tapered off.
The first nine months of 2008 were especially bloody in St. Louis, where the number of homicides surpassed the same period in 2007 by 44.
Kansas City saw 50 homicides in the first six months of 2008, and 52 more in the next three months. August was particularly violent with 21 homicides — a record for a single month.
But as the year started to wind down, the pace for homicides slowed in both cities.
Change in tactics
In St. Louis, the number of slayings dropped by 15 in the last three months of 2008 compared with the same period in 2007, coinciding with new police Chief Daniel Isom's first three months on the job.
Isom, a 20-year veteran of the St. Louis Police Department, already has instituted some changes. He has officers answering to district commanders, rather than headquarters, to help tailor anti-crime strategies to specific neighborhoods.
Police also are working with state probation and parole officers to track the most violent offenders, and officers have been saturating neighborhoods that have seen a high number of homicides.
Kansas City officers have responded to the homicide problem by patrolling the most violent areas harder, trying to better contain neighborhood feuds and cracking down on violent crime suspects to get them off the streets.
In December, more than 90 people were arrested in a massive two-day sweep in the city's most violent neighborhoods, an effort aimed at advancing homicide investigations.
"Instead of being reactive whenever there's a homicide, we decided we could be proactive," Ell said.
Officers also were able to curb violence by comparing details of various shootings to better determine which incidents were related.
"We found we could do more intelligence policing," Ell said. "That's what you saw more of the last part of the year. We're not going to abandon that strategy."
He said community programs such as Aim4Peace also helped as the year progressed by working to address the root causes of the violence and intervene in conflicts to keep them from escalating.
Program manager Tracie McClendon-Cole said Aim4Peace works to build relationships with reformed criminals and pair them with people still in that lifestyle to break the cycle of violence. The city-funded program targets a core group of neighborhoods on Kansas City's east side, an economically and academically troubled area where most of the killings have occurred.
Andale Gross reported on this story from Kansas City.