By Phill Brooks
The decision of Missouri's governor to assign more state law enforcement officers to the St. Louis area to resolve firearm violence does not address the underlying issues I've heard expressed for decades from St. Louis area leaders and cops.
By way of background, I'm a pretty conservative and rural-background person with no inner-city experience. But as a statehouse reporter, urban sources have given me a deep understanding about the complexities underlying the violence we're seeing in our metro areas.
One of my best teachers about those complexities has been Jamilah Nasheed, who's served in both the House and Senate from St. Louis city (now serving her last year in Missouri's Senate). Nasheed has a deep understanding about this issue
Growing up in a St. Louis city housing project, she'd been a member of a street gang in her teen years when she stabbed another. Her father was killed from a drive-by shooting and her mother died from a self-inflicted gunshot. Yet, Nasheed rose to found a business and to serve in Missouri's General Assembly where she quickly caught my attention in her first year.
She passionately has stressed to me that the answer to urban violence is to provide alternative settings and environments for children before they essentially drop out. Nasheed said expanded city libraries, more positive youth opportunities, more engaged schools and more job opportunities could be among the alternatives to kids from joining gangs and violence.
Her passion went beyond just words. Early on, I discovered she regularly visits the homes of children skipping school to encourage their parents and guardians to keep their kids in class. She founded a program in St. Louis seeking to keep kids in school. She rose above partisan barriers. Although a Democrat, she supported a Republican for governor, Peter Kinder, because of GOP support for alternatives to troubled public schools.
I heard similar themes in the aftermath of the Ferguson shooting and riots. At one legislative hearing in the aftermath of Ferguson, a St. Louis area religious leader testified about the importance of religious institutions to help develop a culture against violence.
Another perspective for me came from a top St. Louis police leader. Gov. Jay Nixon's response to Ferguson was to flood the town with military assault vehicles and National Guard officers carrying high-powered weapons.
Out-of-town cops will not solve this problem, that police leader told me. More important, he said, was to have more local beat cops, walking the streets.
That's how you discover from neighbors who are potential trouble makers. It's also how a cop can develop a relationship with a troubled kid to steer the youngster away from gangs and violence.
Tougher state law enforcement in the St. Louis area including Highway Patrol "surges" of Interstate highways as the governor initiated falls short of what I've been told over the years are the effective approaches to the underlying causes of teenage urban violence.
It does not deal with the culture of inner-city violence that have deep roots which our state officials have failed to address for years. It does not provide alternatives to kids to avoid gangs, drugs and street crime.
With St. Louis and Kansas City among the top American cities for urban homicides, I'm hoping next year's session of Missouri's legislature will examine this issue more deeply. And the governor has indicated he plans to continue community discussions about this issue.
Writing this column has reminded me of an adage I heard recently about how to effectively address major public policy issues. Essentially it was that "when you have a dead tree in your backyard, you don't just trim the branches." But on urban gun violence, I'm not optimistic that Missouri's General Assembly will address the root causes.
I suspect the partisan debate about gun control involving assault weapons, firearm background checks and limits on large magazine clips will just distract attention from some of the major factors involved in the homicide rates in Missouri's inner cities.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.
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