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James Clark, from the nonprofit Better Family Life, speaks to residents during a neighborhood meeting in St. Louis on August 19, 2017. [Whitney Curtis / POLITICO]

How We Fix This

St. Louis Pledges Millions for Gun Violence Interrupters

Some activists remain skeptical the money will actually come through.

In May, 2-year-old Kayden Johnson was shot to death in a north St. Louis home alongside his 18-year-old mother. By the end of summer, a dozen more children under the age of 16 had been fatally shot in the city, a crisis that has galvanized state and local leaders to pledge millions to gun violence prevention programs.

In August, city officials fast-tracked an emergency $500,000 contract to establish a St. Louis chapter of Cure Violence, the nationally recognized anti-violence program that deploys outreach workers to de-escalate street conflicts. This month, the city comptroller proposed quadrupling the city’s investment in the program, and the St. Louis Board of Aldermen’s public safety committee unanimously approved allocating another $5 million from the city’s budget surplus. Meanwhile, Missouri Governor Mike Parson, a Republican, pledged state funding in the “million-dollar bracket” for social programs to address the violence.

“This summer lit a fire for politicians in St. Louis,” said Marcus McAllister, a trainer for Cure Violence who has served as the organization’s point-person for its forthcoming St. Louis operation. “But I wish we could have been working down here 10 years ago. It’s not like the city couldn’t have used it.”

The drumbeat of gun violence in St. Louis is loud and sustained. For the past several years, the city has held the unenviable distinction of being Amerca’s murder capital, with a homicide rate triple that of Chicago and higher than any other big city. So far this year, the city has recorded 149 homicides.

But instead of funding evidence-based strategies to reduce shootings, city and state leaders have largely focused on ramping up enforcement of gun crimes as a remedy for the violence. As The Trace has reported, the Eastern District of Missouri is consistently among the top 10 federal court districts for per capita gun prosecution rates. In 2016, the district’s number of prosecutions was almost almost five times the national average. Several studies examining the effect of increased enforcement have found it to be ineffective at curbing gun crime.

Gun violence prevention researchers and advocates interviewed by The Trace expressed relief that the city was finally paying more attention to gun violence and choosing to fund prevention-based approaches to reducing shootings. But they said they would reserve judgment until the funds materialized.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s a positive thing, but until they send an actual transfer and the agency [that will partner with Cure Violence] has been selected, I’m hesitant to even be excited,” said Paola Rijos, who runs the Gun Violence Initiative at Washington University in St. Louis’s Institute for Public Health. “I’ve seen situations in the past where the money gets used for something other than what was intended in the grant.”

The Gun Violence Initiative brings together experts from medicine, academia, and public policy fields to collaborate on gun violence prevention strategies and programs. It’s also one of several local anti-violence organizations that is unlikely to benefit from the new funding spelled out by city hall.

“Right now, our work essentially amounts to an in-kind donation of staffing and technical assistance,” said Rijos. Since she and the institute’s associate director, Victoria Anwuri, have been unable to secure long-term grant funding, they have had to rely almost exclusively on university investment to advance its work. That funding stream, they say, isn’t sustainable. “[Grant money] would allow us to support more community-centered interventions, and to ensure those interventions last,” Rijos said.

Even Cure Violence, perhaps the nation’s most well-known anti-violence program, has struggled to secure an audience — and money — in St. Louis. Lewis Reed, the president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, has sought funding for the program every year since 2016. But the proposals have consistently failed to advance. By comparison, the St. Louis Police Department spent an average of $10 million a year on commissioned overtime alone since 2017.

Like Cure Violence, Better Family Life employs outreach workers in St. Louis to defuse conflicts before they escalate to violence. James Clark, the organization’s founder, estimates that since it launched, Better Family Life has helped resolve more than 80 disputes — each with the potential to be fatal. But despite the program’s success, Clark’s organization has never employed more than 11 outreach workers. With each worker only being able to manage three to five cases at a given time, the organization’s reach does not extend as far as Clark would like. “Realistically, I would need a staff of at least 20 who do nothing but de-escalations all day,” he said.

One of those outreach workers, Joe Robinson, agreed that the city desperately needs more in-the-field activists like himself. But he stressed that debates about funding and legislation sometimes leave out a larger point. To treat the city’s gun violence problem at its root, he says, the city needs to reduce its tolerance for violence. He places that responsibility with the media.

“When you’re steady hearing about crime, crime, crime — never a crime being solved, a crime being solved, a crime being solved — that’ll make someone feel like what they’re seeing is normal, like that’s what we’re supposed to be doing,” he said. “If someone thinks they can get away with a crime, what’s to stop them from trying?”