ST. LOUIS -- Police are making fewer arrests for lower-level crimes in St. Louis, and the racial disparities among those arrests are narrowing, according to a new study by criminologists with the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
The findings suggest that enforcement, and the number of black people arrested compared to their white counterparts, had been on the decline long before the controversial police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014 ignited a nationwide movement demanding better treatment of black residents by police.
Researchers examined the number of people St. Louis police arrested during the past 16 years for lower-level offenses such as misdemeanors, municipal violations and bench warrants, as well as criminal summonses issued in lieu of arrest. They also tracked felony arrests for the same stretch of time.
Researchers found that in 2002, a black person in the city was five times more likely than a white person to have some type of law enforcement action taken against them. Fifteen years later, that racial gap had been cut by more than half.
But what do the findings mean for a city often labeled the most dangerous in the country? Are police enforcing fewer laws, or are there just fewer officers to do so?
Lead UMSL researcher Lee Slocum noted that the department had 1,200 officers at the start of the study and only about 900 in 2017. And crime overall has been declining locally and nationwide during the same time period -- so there could be fewer arrests because there are fewer crimes being reported.
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Slocum said the research is limited when it comes to answering whether arrest trends mirror all crime levels in the city.
Arrest trends for felony crimes kept up with the city's felony crime rate. So, it appears that police are still making the same amount of arrests for the most serious crimes as they were at the beginning of the study.
However, it's not as easy to tell whether a decreasing rate of low-level offenses in the city is driving down the corresponding arrest numbers. Lower-level crimes such as property damage or disorderly conduct don't always get reported or otherwise come to police attention, unlike more serious crimes such as shootings and homicides.
In other areas, the research was more conclusive.