Friday, March 18, 2016

Why A Police Chief Cares About the NGA Decision

Like many people around the area, I’ve been paying close attention to news coverage about the future of The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. While doing some background and reading about the agency, I was struck by their exemplary motto, "Know the Earth... Show the Way…Understand the World".

What makes those words so fitting is how well they capture the mission of the agency and its future. The NGA gathers intelligence about our world. It finds paths to follow in uncertain terrain and it gives our leaders the understanding they need to make the hardest of decisions. One story that really illustrates what a big deal this organization is happened a few years ago, when our nation’s capital was paralyzed by a severe snowstorm. The St. Louis NGA office stepped in and stepped up, taking over critical intelligence functions that could no longer be performed in D.C., functions that were essential to our National Security.

Now, NGA is facing a decision of its own and we in St. Louis have a chance to do for it, what it has done so well for our country: show the way.

Over 70 years ago, the agency found a home here in St. Louis. And a good home it is, surrounded by people who combined the best aspects of a mid-western work ethic with all the sophisticated intellectual and social capital of any major U.S. city. Not surprisingly, the arrangement worked out perfectly, with NGA growing to become a flagship of good government, and with its workforce in St. Louis evolving to include over 3,000 of the modern tech economy’s best jobs. By any measure, this relationship has been a real success story.

But not every decision in public policy yields such positive results. About the same time NGA was settling here, another development was in the planning stages and bound for St. Louis: the Pruitt-Igoe housing project. By sharp contrast, this became a universal synonym for failed government and left St. Louis with one of post-industrial society's saddest stories.

But as it too rarely does, history now offers us a chance to make things right, by tying these two stories together into one, with an unmistakably happy ending.

Having outgrown its current facility, NGA needs land to build a new home. We in St. Louis have that, and plenty of it, thanks to vast and still-vacant property that once included Pruitt-Igoe. Not only is this an ideal spot for purely practical reasons, it also offers an important moral and social benefit. It would be located in one of the President’s federally designated “promise zones”, which should make it a priority destination for federal development resources. To learn more about that, click here.

And make no mistake about that moral dimension. Although any city would gain from hosting such a prestigious guest as NGA, only St. Louis – as the incumbent home – will actually be hurt if political pressures get their way and the complex is located elsewhere. To my way of thinking, that alone makes our city the right choice.

But why should I, as Police Chief, care about this issue? What does the location of a map-making agency have to do with the problem of crime and the ongoing effort to make St. Louis a safer society?


One of the most tragic consequences of the Pruitt-Igoe policy failure is the damage it did to our community. By concentrating poverty, the project intensified crime. By intensifying crime, it spread fear. By spreading fear, it discouraged development. And by discouraging development, it aggravated the problem of poverty, resulting in a vicious cycle that took decades to break.

The good news is the entire process can be reversed. By encouraging development, we decrease poverty. By decreasing poverty, we discourage crime. By discouraging crime, we reduce fear. And by reducing fear, we inspire further growth and development. St. Louis has already been succeeding with this model for decades. In all the key categories, and on all the major metrics, our city is twice as safe as it was in the early 1990s. This approach works. In the long run, it’s really the only thing that does.

A new NGA facility in the heart of St. Louis is just the push we need to make it work even better. What we have here is nothing less than a historic opportunity. We can take the sad legacy of Pruitt-Igoe and replace it with a story of positive growth and successful development.    

For NGA, and for St. Louis, the way forward is also the way home. And home is St. Louis.

This illustration shows one potential site layout for the next NGA
West site in North St. Louis. 

The illustration, among others, can be found in this Briefing Book
My letter of support can also be found on page 52 of the document.