In one Facebook post, St Louis-area residents list 80 unsolved murders

Lois Beckett
St Louis County police listen to the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, speak about efforts to combat violent crime. Sessions has begun to pull back federal scrutiny of local police departments. Photograph: Lawrence Bryant/Reuters

Shana Tolliver had a simple question: how many of her Facebook friends knew a murder victim whose case was still unsolved?

On many Facebook pages, this question might spark few responses. But Tolliver, a 35-year-old who runs her own hairstyling business, lives in St Louis, which has America’s highest big-city murder rate.

Tolliver’s private Facebook post asking friends in St Louis about unsolved murders generated a list of more than 60 names in the space of an hour. By the end of the day, the private post had more than 100 comments: “My big brother.” “My sister.” “Both of my cousins.” “My fiancé Londen.” “My fiancé Brad.”

Of the roughly 80 murder victims listed, according to family and friends, none had yet seen any justice.

Tolliver said she wrote her post in response to what seemed like a constant stream of friends writing “Rest in Peace” and talking about the loved ones they had just lost. She wanted to know if the murders she was hearing about were being solved, the perpetrators charged with a crime, or if the cases were still in limbo.

What the response revealed to her, she said, was: “Everything was unsolved.”

St Louis has become a stark example of the tense relationship between African American neighborhoods and the police. Nearly 200 people were murdered in St Louis last year, almost all of them black. Barely half of the city’s murders have been solved in recent years, according to statistics from the city’s police department, compared with a national average murder clearance rate of 61.5%. Those numbers do not include murders in Ferguson and other small towns that border St. Louis.

At the end of last year, 111 of the city’s 188 murders that year were still unsolved, according to police data.

On Tolliver’s Facebook post, friends wrote about 14-year-old Jamarr Mack Jr, who was murdered on his way home from the library in 2016, and James Johnson Jr, or “Swagg Huncho”, an 18-year-old rapper killed in late 2015, just months after his career began taking off.

Another of the victims mentioned was a 16-year-old girl, an innocent bystander killed by a stray bullet, Tolliver said. When the girl’s friend saw her Facebook post, she wept, Tolliver said. “It’s like, we still haven’t gotten justice for her. We still don’t know why it happened, who did it. She still needs answers. She’s still in mourning.”

Several people mentioned the Ferguson protest leader Darren Seals, who was found shot dead in a burning car last summer, a death that generated international headlines. St Louis County police said the investigation into his death was still active, but that there were no updates in the case.

The overwhelming response to Tolliver’s post left her grieving and eager to see change. A key problem, she said, was that people were unwilling to give information about murder suspects – an analysis echoed by Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri St Louis.

“When there’s a death involved, that’s when you should stand up,” Tolliver said.

Tolliver lost her friend Bariah Crump in 2014. The 28-year-old father was killed after a Fourth of July party in downtown St Louis in what police described as a robbery. When he was killed, there were multiple people around who must have seen or witnessed something, but no one came forward, Tolliver said.

On Facebook, responding to her follow-up question about how to stop the pattern of unsolved murders, several of her friends talked with frustration about ending the “no snitching” code.

“If folks know that they can’t get away with foolishness in your community, then they’ll be less likely to do stuff there,” one friend suggested.

“Start snitching,” another wrote, urging the community to “stand together”.

New research from Rosenfeld, whose work is nationally recognized, found stark disparities in clearance rates for black and white victims in St Louis, looking at all firearm crimes in the city from 2010 through 2012.

The majority of firearm crimes with white victims were cleared by an arrest – 57% in all. In contrast, only 37% of firearm crimes with black victims were cleared.

Rosenfeld agreed with Tolliver that a key factor was the willingness of witnesses and the victims of nonfatal crimes to cooperate with the police.

“I think it’s fair to say that whites are more willing than blacks in St. Louis – and I think this applies to other cities – to assist the police in investigations,” Rosenfeld said.

Tolliver said she understood why some people were mistrustful of the police department – and why some were frightened.

“We do have some good officers out there, but we also have bad officers that prey on the community,” she said. People “have the information to help others, but who do they give the information to if they don’t trust, you know, the authorities?”

The number of murders in St Louis has climbed steeply in recent years, a trend that began even before 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed by a Ferguson police officer just north of St Louis, sparking intense protests and then a nationwide movement to reform police departments and end police violence toward citizens of color.

Brown’s death and the investigations that followed put a spotlight on how small towns in the region used police to repeatedly fine and ticket residents of color, a practice a US justice department investigation found reflected a “pattern of unconstitutional policing”.

The investigation concluded that Ferguson’s “focus on generating revenue over public safety, along with racial bias” had “created a lack of trust” between the city and its residents, particularly African Americans.

Tolliver said she had experienced this first-hand. She lived briefly in Florissant, a town close to Ferguson, and appreciated its good public schools, but moved because of constant fines and police stops.

“Just being a black female driving a certain car, I would get pulled over every day,” she said.

At the same time, she said she would like to see more police patrols in the city’s highest-crime neighborhoods. “I think they’re more so focused on patrolling downtown areas – or other areas that they feel is more valuable than the areas where the crime really happens on the daily basis,” she said.

The neighborhoods in St Louis most burdened by gun violence have been shaped by decades of planned racial segregation, and are marked by debilitating levels of poverty and unemployment. Vacant homes crumble along the streets.

A four-mile stretch along Natural Bridge Road in North St Louis was the place in America most plagued by gun violence, according to the Guardian’s geographic analysis.

One of Tolliver’s friends posted that the only way to change the murder numbers was to elect different politicians to office, writing: “The way to start is by going to these town hall meeting and voting and putting people in office that’s going to work for you and not against you.”

The St Louis Metropolitan police department provided clearance rate statistics but had no immediate comment in response to Tolliver’s post and the department’s low murder clearance rate.

Under Barack Obama, the federal justice department embraced the cause of local police reform. But the current attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has begun to pull back that federal scrutiny, pledging to serve as a champion of local police officers, even as many big-city chiefs disagree with his approach.

When Sessions visited St Louis in late March, a day after Tolliver posted her first question asking about unsolved murders in St Louis, he focused on increasing morale for police officers and increased crackdowns on drug offenders. He made no mention of the low clearance rates, but did pledge to support local and federal partnerships to put more violent offenders in prison.

“There are not that many people capable of murder. The more of them we put in jail, the fewer murders we will have,” Sessions said in St Louis.

A spokeswoman for St Louis Metropolitan police department said it had had a murder clearance rate of 51% in 2016 and 49% in 2015.

While lower than the national average, that rate is still better than Chicago’s. As homicides surged in 2016, the homicide clearance rate hit about 40%, said Frank Giancamilli, a department spokesman.

That meant murderers in Chicago last year had better than even odds of facing no consequences for their crime.

The odds that a person could shoot someone in Chicago without killing them and get away with it were even higher: as of late August 2016, according to police department statistics, the police department had only made arrests in less than 4% of nonfatal shootings that year. The end-of-year clearance rate for shootings was 7%.

In St Louis, many of Tolliver’s friends were not optimistic that it was possible to fix the crisis of unsolved murders, believing “that it’s not going to change, there’s nothing you can do to change it, it’s already too late”, she said.

“Stop the current murders for 100 years,” one suggested, to “give police time to investigate them all.”

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