When the numbers showed that St. Louis had reduced its murders last year while other big cities were hitting records, city officials said their success was due to smart use of crime data and effective anti-violence programs. Still, St. Louis has quietly lowered its murder count in another way: classifying more than three dozen killings as what are termed justifiable homicides, sometimes in apparent violation of FBI guidelines for reporting crimes, a ProPublica/APM Reports investigation found. For a handful of slayings, the police department has simply omitted the cases from its annual totals. From 2010 through 2019, St. Louis police classified an average of six killings a year by private citizens as justifiable homicides, meaning incidents in which someone killed another person who was committing a serious crime. Those cases were not counted in the city’s official murder tally.
In 2020, the city counted17 that way. In 2021, the number jumped to at least 22. Had just a handful of those justifiable homicides been classified as murders, St. Louis might have set its all-time murder record in 2020 and had its second highest annual total in 27 years in 2021. The news organizations found that over the two years, detectives sought murder charges in at least five cases labeled as justified. Prosecutors declined to file charges in four of them; in the fifth, prosecutors later charged a suspect with murder, but the case was still counted in police statistics as a justifiable homicide. FBI guidelines say police must count murders based on results from their investigation, regardless of a prosecutor’s action. The examination of crime statistics doesn’t alter the overall picture of the city’s decline in murder last year, from what the department reported as 263 in 2020 to 198 last year, a drop of nearly 25 percent. It adds important context to that picture, showing the city’s murder count is becoming less reliable as a measure of the number of lives that ended in violence.