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Federal agencies, local police and prosecutors teaming up to fight violence in St. Louis

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ST. LOUIS — Rising violence in St. Louis has led federal and local law enforcement and prosecutors to collaborate on a project aimed at reducing the problem.

Details of "Mission SAVE" were announced Monday after a weekend of violence that brought six more killings and raised the city's homicide total to 103 for the year so far. The effort actually started in December — the "SAVE" in the name stands for "Strike Against Violence Early."

"Mission SAVE" targets the most violent offenders throughout the St. Louis area, though the worst of the crime is in the city. Besides the law enforcement component, it also will involve reaching out to people identified as being most likely to commit gun crimes because of their background and circumstances and trying to convince them not to go down that path.

"We are now seeing second and third generation drug dealers and gang members," said William Woods, special agent in charge of the FBI office in St. Louis, adding that the project also will target illegal drug activity since violent crime is often linked to it.

Investigators will keep tabs on social media as part of the effort to isolate those most likely to commit violent crimes, he said. At some point within the next couple of months, a "call-in" will be initiated to bring in the most likely offenders and alert them in person that they are being closely watched. They will be offered such services as job and drug addiction counseling.

"We will tell them, 'We know who you are. You caught our attention and that's why you are here. You have a choice,'" Woods said.

The project involves about 50 officers or agents from the city of St. Louis, St. Louis County, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI. The U.S. attorney's office also is helping along with local prosecutors.

Rebecca Wu, a spokeswoman with the FBI in St. Louis, said those involved in the project "wanted time to get used to the collaboration at this level, and the integration of resources."

St. Louis recorded 167 homicides in 2008, then the number dropped steadily, bottoming out at 113 killings in both 2011 and 2012.

In 2013, 120 people were killed, then that number rose by 30 percent to 159 killings in 2014. This year, the city is on pace for more than 180 homicides, according to the crime statistics.

St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson said more than half of the killings that have occurred so far this year remain unsolved.

"Mission SAVE" is similar to programs that have been successful in cities including Kansas City, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Stockton, California, the FBI said. Kansas City's homicide rate has fallen sharply since a program called NOVA began in 2013. Gun homicides are down in Stockton, the FBI said. Gang-related killings are down in Cincinnati, and homicides overall are down 34 percent in Indianapolis, the federal agency said.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said the root of the problem in St. Louis is an abundance of guns in the hands of violent criminals. He called gun crimes a "public health crisis."

Federal prosecutors have already begun taking on some cases that would normally go through the St. Louis circuit attorney's office. Last week, U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan announced indictments against five men accused of involvement in two separate homicide cases.

Woods and Dotson acknowledged that violent crime has risen sharply in St. Louis since December, despite the project being underway. Still, they cited positive results of the collaboration, including 79 arrests, removal of 108 illegal firearms and more than 40,000 rounds of ammunition, and major methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin busts.

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