Search About Newsletters Donate
Support independent, nonprofit journalism.

Become a member of The Marshall Project during our summer membership drive. Our journalism has tremendous power to drive change, but we can’t do it without your support.

Feature

In St. Louis, a Racial Disparity in Whose Killings Get Solved

In the past decade, police solved fewer than half of the homicide cases with Black victims and two-thirds of the cases with White ones.

A Black woman with blonde hair gestures outside of an abandoned brick home and a home with white siding while wearing a white hoodie that says “Whitney’s World!” on it.
Erica Jones speaks in February 2024 about the 2015 drive-by killing of her daughter Whitney Brown outside the Shulte Avenue home where the crime occurred in north St. Louis.

On Shulte Avenue on the northside of St. Louis, the sites of the killings are just steps away from each other.

Terrell Hall, 47, was killed near a brick one-story home at the intersection of Shulte and Mimika avenues in 2020.

About 90 paces down the street, Andre Brookfield was shot to death in a car parked in the alley in 2012.

A few steps away, a drive-by shooter gunned down Whitney Brown and Devon Fletcher on the sidewalk in 2015.

Right next door, Cartrell Amos was killed in a home invasion in 2019.

This article was published in partnership with St. Louis Public Radio and APM Reports.

Since 2012, there have been five homicides along this one block in north St. Louis. None of the killers were caught.

“There’s so many of them,” said Carlos Amos of the number of slayings in the Walnut Park West neighborhood. He still wonders why his son was killed.

The homicides continue along the remaining block on Shulte Avenue. In total, there were eight killings along a 1000-foot stretch of pavement since 2007.

Brick houses line a road.

Houses line Shulte Avenue in north St. Louis in February.

Every victim was Black. And none of the cases were solved.

The unsolved killings on Shulte Avenue reflect reality in St. Louis. In a city where nearly 90% of homicide victims are Black, police have struggled to solve the killings of Black people.

Between 2014 and 2023, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department solved fewer than half the homicides of Black people, but solved two-thirds of cases involving White victims during the same period, according to an analysis of police data by APM Reports, St. Louis Public Radio and The Marshall Project. The news organizations found that the department at times struggled to solve homicides in the past decade partly due to shoddy detective work, staffing shortages and eroding community trust.

St. Louis police officials declined repeated interview requests to discuss the findings.

Some Black community leaders have contended that police aren’t making the same effort to solve crimes involving Black victims compared to crimes involving White victims.

“These are communities that don’t trust the police,” said community activist Jamala Rogers, the co-founder of the Organization for Black Struggle. “These are communities that have had bad relationships and experiences with the police.”

A Black woman with gray hair wearing a heathered gray sweater that reads “Thankful” looks away from the camera.

Jamala Rogers sits at the Bullet Related Injury Clinic in St. Louis in October 2023.

While nearly half of the city’s population is Black, the detectives tasked with investigating homicides are overwhelmingly White.

Families of homicide victims on Shulte Avenue echoed Rogers’ concerns. They said contact with police investigators was short-lived, and they have little hope of ever seeing justice for their loved ones.

“I knew in the beginning they wouldn't be doing anything,” Sherya Hawthorne said. Her son, Travis Hill, was shot and killed in an alley behind a Shulte Avenue home in 2017. Hawthorne said police never talked with her about her son’s death, and she felt there was no point in following up. “I never wanted to keep reliving and reliving and reliving it,” she said.

Hill’s killing is one of about 1,000 unsolved homicides involving Black victims between 2014 and 2023. That’s close to double the enrollment of the high school serving students living in the neighborhoods around Shulte Avenue.

St. Louis Police officials say they’ve worked to improve community relations and solve more homicides. After eight years of solving fewer than half of the homicides involving Black victims, police cleared more than half in 2022 and 2023, according to police records.

A police spokesperson refused interview requests to discuss their track record. But last year, Ryan Cousins, then a major and the commander of the department’s Bureau of Investigative Services, said his focus was on improving the city’s clearance rate.

A Black woman with blonde hair wears a button with her daughter’s image on it.

Jones attends a community listening session on gun violence prevention in August 2023 at Friendly Temple Church in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood of St. Louis.

“We’re constantly looking at cases and we’re constantly working for these victims,” he said.

But victims’ family members say they feel forgotten.

Erica Jones said that after the 2015 killing of her daughter Whitney Brown, she made it a habit to call homicide detectives every two weeks for updates. But after initial interviews and meetings with detectives, Jones said her phone calls were rarely answered or returned.

Jones formed a support group called Voice of the Voiceless STL to help grieving families. In a recent interview on Shulte Avenue, Jones said she wants reassurances that her daughter’s case is a priority.

“I'm sick of the excuses,” she said. “All of us mothers are tired of the excuses. We just want answers.”

Police officials say lack of witness cooperation is a major reason why many homicides aren’t solved. But Black community leaders say many residents don’t trust officers after years of targeted policing in Black neighborhoods and incidents of excessive force against Black people. In other instances, witnesses who cooperated with police paid for it with their lives.

In December 2016, 16-year-old James Scales witnessed the killing of his friend, 18-year-old Dwayne Clanton. Scales talked with police and agreed to testify in the case. But in the ensuing months, Scales was shot at and verbally threatened, according to a lawsuit filed by Scales’ parents and verified through police reports. Scales’ mother also said that her home was shot at and that “a messenger” told her not to go to court “after the 4th of July.” Scales’ mother repeatedly requested witness protection for her son but never received it, according to the lawsuit.

Her son was shot and killed while waiting for his school bus in September 2017.

Four men were charged with murdering Scales but were later acquitted. The defendant Scales might have testified against was convicted of lesser charges; conspiracy to commit murder and witness tampering. Cousins, who served as police commander of the investigative unit last year, declined to discuss why Scales wasn’t given witness protection. He said, however, that the department has relocated other witnesses.

Relatives of some victims said they’d been approached by people who claimed to have information about their loved ones’ killings but declined to discuss specifics or speak to the police.

A Black man wearing a gray pullover, navy sweatpants and white sneakers sits on a chair at his home.

Calvin Fletcher in April 2024 at his home in St. Louis’ Bellefontaine Neighbors neighborhood.

Calvin Fletcher and his family have been waiting since 2015 for police to solve the killing of his brother, Devon.

Police released surveillance footage of the incident and pleaded for anyone with information about it to come forward. A $5,000 reward was offered by St. Louis Regional CrimeStoppers for anyone giving information about the incident. The nonprofit made additional pleas for information over the years.

Fletcher said individuals informed another brother that Devon and Whitney were not the intended shooting targets that night but declined to give specifics.

“For them not to speak on it and give any information as far as what happened. That's just as upsetting as when the police aren't doing anything — if not more upsetting,” Fletcher said. “For all we know, [the murderer] is still riding up and down the street every day, or walking past the house, or living their life.”

Experts who track homicides nationally say the lack of witness cooperation coupled with the failure to solve cases creates a cycle of violence.

One way police can build trust with communities of color is to diversify their ranks, experts say. Roughly three-quarters of the St. Louis homicide detectives are White, a higher percentage than the overall department, according to a 2020 report written by the Ethical Society of Police, an organization of primarily Black St. Louis police officers. The group was created in 1972 to improve police and community relations, increase diversity and improve police accountability within the department.

The Ethical Society also said in its 2020 report that department leadership promoted White officers into the homicide division but denied the same opportunities for Black officers with similar credentials. The group contends that the lack of Black detectives hampers homicide investigations.

“Sometimes solving a crime can be as simple as a victim, witness, or offender’s ability to identify with those conducting the interview,” a 2016 report by the Ethical Society of Police said. “When sections of a Police Department tasked with investigations are lacking diversity, the unique views of some cultures can fail to have the level of credence their culture deserves.”

The Ethical Society’s former vice president, Todd Ross, said the homicide division has made some progress in community relations but said there’s still work to do.

“It’s not solely just a homicide unit that looks like the community, it needs to be a homicide unit that understands the community,” said Ross, who serves as a homicide sergeant in the department. “You know there are some that ‘look like the community’ that still don’t understand the community and you have some that don’t look like the community and they understand the community.”

Three police vehicles are parked facing different directions.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department responds to a shooting in August 2023 near the campus of St. Louis University. The shooting left one victim dead.

In the early part of the century, St. Louis police were more successful in solving homicides involving both White and Black victims. The department cleared nearly 60 percent of the homicides involving Black victims between 2004 and 2013, according to an analysis of recent police data.

But police have been much less successful over the last decade. Detectives solved about 45% of the cases involving Black victims between 2014 and 2023.

The declining clearance rate occurred as homicides increased. In 2011, the city reported 113 homicides. By 2017, the homicide count nearly doubled. By 2020, the city reported 263 homicides.

The rising number of killings earned St. Louis the distinction of having the highest homicide rate among United States cities with a population of 250,000 or more for every year between 2014 and 2021. During that period, police solved fewer than half of the homicides involving Black victims.

Detectives’ ability to solve homicides with Black victims hit a low in 2019. Police cleared 29% of the 173 homicides involving Black victims that year, according to the analysis of police records.

A seated man wearing a tan suit and bowtie gestures next to a microphone, with two people visible seated beyond him.

Ness Sandoval, a demographer at St. Louis University, speaks about demographic changes during a legislative committee hearing in October 2023 at St. Louis Community College in Forest Park.

“There shouldn’t be this disparity,” said Ness Sandoval, a professor of Demography and Sociology at St. Louis University. “Every homicide should be treated with dignity, and the proper amount of resources brought to the case to close it. For the family’s sake, so they can move on.”

Police officials have acknowledged that the rising homicide count made it difficult for detectives to keep tabs on a growing list of cold cases while investigating new ones. Joe Steiger, business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Association, said homicide detectives are dealing with increasing cases that are difficult to solve.

St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones campaigned on reimagining the police department and her decision to hire Robert Tracy as the city’s police chief is showing early signs of success.

Prior to joining the St. Louis department in 2023, Tracy led the police force in Wilmington, Delaware. That city’s record-high homicide rate dropped significantly while Tracy was at the helm.

Tracy is hoping to replicate that success in St. Louis. The department solved a higher percentage of cases in 2022 compared to previous years, and that improvement continued last year when detectives closed 88 of the city’s 158 homicides. At a January news conference, Tracy said police benefitted from community cooperation, achieving the lowest homicide tally in 10 years and a clearance rate now above the national average.

A White police officer in uniform salutes in profile.

Chief Robert Tracy of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department salutes during the National Anthem at the State of the City address in April 2023 at St. Louis University.

“The only way we can start to build the trust is to get to know each other and after years of separation because of the pandemic and after the George Floyd murder, we’ve been separated,” Tracy said. “We have an opportunity now to start to all come together.”

But even as the department solved a greater percentage of killings, about 1,000 families who lost loved ones in the past decade are still waiting for closure.

Devon Fletcher used to put up a Christmas tree at his parents’ house every year. The family hasn’t put up a tree in their home since his killing nine years ago, said his brother, Calvin.

“It’s unfortunate that growing up in the neighborhood that we grew up in, you don’t have to be a bad guy to be a victim,” Fletcher said.

He said the only way the case will be solved is if someone decides to break their silence.

“It's disheartening to not really know what happened, to not have anybody who committed the crime be brought to justice.”

This article, the second in a series, was published as a collaboration among St. Louis Public Radio, The Marshall Project and APM Reports, as part of the Public Media Accountability Initiative, which supports investigative reporting at local media outlets around the country.