For the past 17 years, if you were lost trying to find downtown St. Louis’ famous arch, a guide in a bright yellow shirt may have come to your assistance — and recommended a spot for toasted ravioli to boot. Today, you probably have a smartphone for that. As of this month, if you do find yourself turned around in St. Louis, it’ll no longer be a guide that comes to your rescue, but an off-duty police officer.
With both crime and the perception of crime edging up downtown, the Downtown St. Louis Community Improvement District (CID) nixed the Downtown Guides program in mid-March — and replaced the yellow-shirted troop with security patrols.
Missy Kelley, president and CEO of Downtown STL Inc., which manages the CID, says residents’ safety concerns have grown in recent years — particularly since the 2014 unrest in nearby Ferguson after a black teen, Michael Brown, was killed by a police officer — and they didn’t see the guides as providing security.
“[The guides] were just supposed to be extra eyes and ears on the street so that if they saw something they could alert the police,” says Kelley. “It was to be both a hospitality and security type program, but we were leaning a lot more on hospitality.” The guides were unarmed, and in fact were ordered to back away from security issues and call the police, given their lack of training.
The actual state of crime and safety in St. Louis is a little murky. Kelley says that while crime has not increased dramatically downtown, the perception of safety has changed.
“While downtown, like any other urban core has, has problems with crime, is certainly not the most dangerous part of city, it’s certainly not even close,” she says. But since the city’s police department has about 400 fewer cops in 2017 than in 2000, and 100 positions funded but unfilled, “we’re basically understaffed in downtown, and so as a result of that, the perception of safety is much worse than the actual safety,” says Kelley. “People think it’s a lot more dangerous than it actually is.”
But St. Louis Today’s crime tracker shows that crime downtown has in fact risen 6.26 percent over the past six months, compared to the same period the year before. Nearly 2,300 crimes were reported last year, about 75 percent of them related to property. That makes downtown’s crime rate the highest per capita of the city’s 77 neighborhoods — however, only 806 people lived downtown as of the 2010 census. Tens of thousands more commute to work downtown every day, and nearly 10 million visit annually.
Hence, Downtown STL Inc. wants to battle both the reality and perception. Not doing so could be costly. Personal injury law office Brown and Crouppen announced in February it was considering leaving downtown because of crime, especially after the recent killing of a local rapper. In the past three years, the guides saw calls to their pedestrian escort line nearly double. Under that service, guides walked residents worried about safety from offices to cars. The new security patrols will take over that duty, as well as hospitality ones. But of course, whether police add to a sense of safety or detract from it is a matter of perception too.
Kelley chalks up both the increased crime and concern about it to the “Ferguson effect,” the idea that police are backing off more aggressive enforcement for fear of sparking further backlash, and that criminals feel emboldened by their timidity. Some studies have identified a grain of truth in the idea. But there’s another “Ferguson effect” theory, one that may point to unintended consequences of replacing guides with guards. A study of 911 calls in Milwaukee found that following an incident of police violence there, emergency calls dropped precipitously — particularly in black neighborhoods.
Kelley isn’t concerned that more of a security presence will increase tensions between residents and officers, nor is she worried that having more officers on the street will make people think the problem is worse than it is.
“People already think it’s worse than it is,” she says. “Pretending that there’s not a perception problem or an actual problem isn’t helping anyone.”
She says the patrol officers will be hospitality-minded, not intimidating. Four pairs of officers will patrol from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Not the windows of greatest crime, Kelley notes, but the windows during which the most people are likely to be out on the streets and benefit from an increased perception of security.
Right now, all the roles are being filled by off-duty police officers but Downtown STL Inc. is looking to replace four of them with licensed watchmen, security guards who can patrol in the public right-of-way. Watchmen can’t make arrests and won’t carry weapons, but the police will. Downtown STL Inc. is still looking for a company to supply the watchmen. They’re seeking an agreement that the company must agree to consider any of the 11 guides who lost their jobs for watchmen positions, so long as they are eligible for training.
Watchmen will also take on the role of calling in necessary improvements to infrastructure, a role that guides once filled. The police patrols will address what Kelley calls “quality of life” issues related to homelessness and panhandling.
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.