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Gun-happy criminals bolder, complain police in St. Louis

Friday, November 29, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- With 22 years of city policing under his gun belt, Sgt. Gary Wiegert has suddenly seen this Gateway to the West look more like the Gateway to the Wild West.

So far this year, St. Louis police have been shot at nearly 40 times. That is about even with last year's rate. But police say this year's shootings have been more brazen, and more of them seem senseless and unprovoked. Nine officers have been wounded so far in 2002.

One officer was fired on while making a traffic stop. Another officer this month was ambushed and shot with an assault rifle and lost a finger while chasing suspects in a stolen car.

After a policewoman was shot in the groin while responding to a minor car wreck, police chief Joe Mokwa last month made wearing body armor mandatory for the city's 1,100 street officers.

"It seems like criminals used to run away. Now, they're standing their ground and shooting at us," said Wiegert, president of the police union. "Not only are the criminals out there trying to shoot us, but sometimes it feels like the community is against us."

Mokwa insisted the community has not turned against the police, and said the assaults could be partly a result of more aggressive policing in violent neighborhoods. Still, he said the shootings have left his officers shell-shocked.

"They're afraid on some level that when they stop people, is it the person that just shot the police?" Mokwa said.

Wiegert said criminals have been emboldened by what he calls new shackles on police.

Under a state law that went into effect in 2000, police in Missouri must take down the age, sex and minority group of motorists they pull over. The requirement is aimed at preventing racial profiling.

Plunging arrests

Wiegert said the requirement has made St. Louis police more timid and fearful of being labeled racist. Arrests in south St. Louis -- Wiegert's turf -- plunged 21 percent in the nine months since the policy began, he said.

He also complained about a policy that took effect last May that says officers can chase a stolen vehicle only if they consider the suspect dangerous. The old policy allowed officers to chase suspects wanted on misdemeanors. Wiegert said 1,008 more vehicles have been reported stolen this year compared with the same period a year ago, perhaps because criminals believe police are less likely to chase them.

"It seems like the pendulum has swung against us," he said. "Officers are throwing up their hands."

All the while, some residents accuse police of covering up unwarranted shootings and brutality and are pressing for more oversight, threatening a boycott of St. Louis conventions and entertainment if things do not improve. Mokwa said an accord could come by year's end.

The gunfire comes against a backdrop of mixed crime figures for St. Louis. Through October, there were 100 homicides, 27 fewer than during the first 10 months of last year. But rapes were up 28 percent during the January-September period, and auto theft climbed 12 percent.

St. Louis, with a population of about 350,000 and a police force of 1,500, has had one of the nation's highest urban crime rates over the past several years, according to Eli Lehrer of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

From 1995 through 2001, Lehrer said, the crime rate in major cities dropped about 30 percent, more than four times St. Louis' 7 percent drop-off.

As for the shootings, Lehrer said: "We may need a longer trend to say this is a larger problem than random chance. But obviously, it's dreadful for police morale."

Officer Gary Wurm, a 15-year St. Louis police veteran, said a colleague last month was fired on while simply investigating reports of a suspicious person. Wurm said he is always on guard, even when pulling over a driver for running a stop sign.

"I approach it like it's a serious felony car stop every time," he said. "Safety now is the top priority. If you don't the simplest thing, it can be a bad day."

Zaki Baruti, a black activist and leader of the local Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, said 36 people have died under suspicious circumstances at the hands of St. Louis police since 1983.

He said he worries that more people could get shot if police made twitchy by the latest violence respond with greater force.

"It's like a powder keg ready to explode," Baruti said.


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