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Feature

5 Takeaways From Our Series on St. Louis Homicide Investigations

The police department has struggled to solve homicides, partly due to shoddy detective work, staffing shortages and eroding community trust.

A view from above the awning of the St. Louis Police Department headquarters' entrance, where a man is standing in front of the metal doors. The man’s face is not visible.
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department in the Downtown West neighborhood of St. Louis in April 2024.

From 2014 through 2020, St. Louis had the highest homicide rate in the country among cities with 250,000 people or more. St. Louis Public Radio and APM Reports spent nearly two and a half years fighting to access public information about the police department’s efforts to solve these killings. Here are five takeaways from our reporting.

This article was published in partnership with APM Reports and St. Louis Public Radio.
St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department detectives solved fewer than half of the nearly 2,000 homicides in the city over the past decade

For most of the decade, police struggled to bring perpetrators to justice. A review of data and records reveals some of the reasons police failed to solve so many cases, including shoddy detective work, lack of resources and eroding community trust.

But things have begun to improve. In 2022 and 2023, homicides decreased, and the department solved 56% of the murders committed in those years, its highest rate since 2013, according to the analysis.

The department did not make anyone available to discuss these findings and did not respond to written requests for comment.

There is a racial disparity in the cases that detectives solve

Between 2014 and 2023, police solved fewer than half of the cases involving Black homicide victims but solved two-thirds of cases involving White victims.

Police officials say a lack of witness cooperation makes it harder to solve homicides. But in neighborhoods with frequent murders and few arrests, cooperating with police can lead to deadly retaliation.

Meanwhile, Black community leaders say many residents don’t trust officers after years of targeted policing in Black neighborhoods and numerous examples of excessive force against Black people.

Several detectives were accused of failing to take basic investigative steps critical to solving cases

According to memos written by a former homicide supervisor and provided to St. Louis Public Radio, some detectives did not look for key evidence, follow up on tips, or keep in touch with the families of victims. Department higher-ups kept some officers in the unit after receiving those internal complaints about investigative failures.

One detective was transferred into the homicide unit in 2019 despite a history that included brutality lawsuits, questions about his credibility and suspicion of substance abuse.

Staffing shortages and a DNA backlog hampered the department’s efforts to solve homicides

Massive overtime, turnover in key positions, an exodus of crime lab technicians and a ballooning backlog of DNA samples linked to homicides all hindered investigations as the homicide rate hit record highs.

In 2023, the average turnaround time for DNA samples — which can be critical to solving cases — was 15 months, according to department records.

The department has withheld information about homicides from the public and keeps inconsistent records

The city of St. Louis spent nearly two and a half years fighting to keep information about homicide clearances secret — even though the department had provided the same data from previous years to The Washington Post. Officials released the records last summer as part of a legal settlement after journalists sued the city.

The department also refused to provide a current roster of homicide detectives or share how many detectives are in the homicide unit.

Researchers have raised questions about the transparency of the department around its public data. St. Louis University professor Ness Sandoval, for example, attempted to build a monthly crime database for each of the city’s 79 neighborhoods, but could not get the month-by-month homicide numbers to add up to the department’s published yearly totals.

The St. Louis police declined to discuss discrepancies in their data. But police Chief Robert Tracy touched briefly on the subject in January at a public safety briefing with the mayor and other officials.

“I'm a big believer in auditing those numbers, because I am all about statistics and the integrity of the statistics,” he said, “so if he’s found differences, let’s find out what they are. Let’s talk to him about that.”

Sandoval said he has met with an assistant to Tracy but not the chief himself.