Here in St. Louis, police are knocking on selected doors and making a polite but pointed pitch to startled parents: We think your kid has a gun. Fill out this form and we’ll come in and get it.
Nobody gets arrested, nobody goes to jail. Just waive your right to a search warrant and let the cops poke around. Keep your kid, fork over his firearm.
“I don’t care if he’s got a bazooka in there,” said St. Louis police Sgt. Simon Risk. “We just want the gun.”
The consent-to-search form used in high-crime areas of St. Louis is popular but unproven, and it’s being copied by other cities regardless. It is just one tool in one town in a country where the climate of fear has turned virtually every community into a glorified crime lab, a felony think tank.
Like never before, U.S. cities are furiously tapping each other for ideas and competing against each other for grants in a great race to develop new models for crime-fighting, magic bullets to deter the terror of the ‘90s: violent youth, armed and loaded.
Many of these new programs involve aggressive police techniques that not long ago would have been dismissed as pure harassment, racial and otherwise.
In Kansas City and Indianapolis, police use virtual drive-by enforcement, sending special teams into high-crime areas with a free-ranging mandate to stop cars, search bodies, find guns.
In St. Louis, a black teen out on a snowy night, changing his cadence when a police car approaches, is fair game to be hit with the pinpoint beam of a searchlight, stopped, and patted down.
Police appear to operate with impunity here because the high-crime neighborhoods they target have demanded it during long meetings with residents too scared to go outside when the street lights come on.
One of the hot models for fighting gun crimes began in 1991 in Kansas City, where University of Maryland criminologist Lawrence Sherman designed a system in which special police patrols were dispatched to find guns in an 80-block area where the homicide rate was 20 times the national average.
The cops had broad discretion to stop and search cars and people. Gun crimes plunged 49 percent and, most importantly, didn’t rise in neighboring areas - meaning bad behavior was abating, not merely moving on.
Now, Sherman is building the same system for the entire city of Indianapolis. Last month, Washington, D.C., said it would copy it. Los Angeles is among 30 cities that are interested.
The key, Sherman said, is building enough bridges to the community - meetings with neighborhoods, visiting schools - to make the tough tactics sprout from grass-roots concerns.
But as police departments push the civil liberties envelope, criticism is intensifying. Last year, a federal judge ruled the Chicago Housing Authority had violated the Constitution by searching apartments in a Chicago housing project without getting warrants.
President Clinton defended the sweeps, which were criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Rifle Association and many criminal justice experts.
“These kind of programs, like Kansas City trying to take guns off the street by stopping cars, I’ve got my reservations there’s going to be long-term benefits,” said David Carter, a criminal justice professor at Michigan State University.
Experts say cities are plunging into new programs without a set of instructions, or any evidence that the finished product will work.
Norwalk, Conn., got a $100,000 state grant this spring to copy the consent-to-search program in St. Louis. It plans to even set up roadblocks and checkpoints in high-crime neighborhoods.
“It’s worth a try,” said Police Chief Carl LaBianca.
In San Diego, a special task force hoping to design a nationwide crimefighting model also is incorporating some aspects of the St. Louis program. It’s printing leaflets telling parents of gang members where kids like to hide guns.
Risk’s unit, meanwhile, has applied for a federal grant this year to find out simply if the St. Louis program is even working. There are no resources, he said, to run a controlled experiment.
“We are in the midst of an enormous storm of activity in the general area of violence reduction,” said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology and criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“There are hundreds, thousands of programs across the country. They are happening so quickly and so dramatically that there has not been time to evaluate them,” he said.
Rosenfeld himself has a $500,000 federal grant to create the most elaborate crime prevention program in St. Louis yet, one that intervenes heavily into the lives of troubled youths, using mentors and crisis intervention.
St. Louis is something of a microcosm for the country, implementing so many programs that some officers grumble about redirected resources and duplication of efforts.
Risk works for Mobile Reserve, which began aggressive drug and gun suppression techniques last year.
Another task force with similar duties was set up in August with the mandate of finding ways to jail the city’s 100 most violent people.
In October, the city recruited a special team of building inspectors to look for ways to condemn the homes of drug dealers. The inspectors, to say the least, are into it: They’ve given themselves gonzo street nicknames, like “Rambo.”
“That’s what intrigues me about St. Louis. They seem to be doing the most,” said David Doi, director of law enforcement relations for the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence in Washington.
All of this has been spurred by the sort of statistics and palpable sense of danger felt in communities big and small. From 1983-1993 in St. Louis, the percentage of aggravated assaults with firearms soared from 20.7 percent to 52.75 percent.
“Ten years ago we’d get one of those every four months. Now we get three or four a week,” he said.The consent-to-search forms are
considered a powerful weapon. Risk said if a youngster is arrested with a gun, the officers will go to his home and those of his companions and try to conduct a search without the hassle of a warrant.
Risk claims 98 percent of the parents invite the officers in, and many are stunned when they find a gun under their kid’s bed.
But experts raise questions about whether poor people really feel they have a choice when three uniformed officers, no matter how polite, show up at the door and ask to come in. And whether taking a gun away from a kid makes him a better person.
“It’s one of those programs where it’s so easy to do wrong, to create a coercive environment,” Rosenfeld said.
Risk said his 20-member unit, which has an annual budget of $833,873, seized 401 guns last year and a total of $1.6 million in drugs, firearms and property.
In terms of pure numbers, that program pales in comparison with, for example, a four-week gun buyback program in Toledo, Ohio, last year that cost less than $33,000 and netted nearly 600 guns.
But research has shown that buyback programs generally recover lowquality firearms usually turned in by law-abiding people - not the kind of guns used in crimes.
Cities are desperately experimenting with aggressive and sometimes questionable alternatives, and nobody is sure yet what works.
“We need research,” said Sherman. “None of us has a very clear idea about how to stop crime.”