FAIRVIEW HEIGHTS — U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. was in St. Clair County on Friday to talk with law enforcement officials about the challenges in fighting violence in the metro-east, and said he's pleased with the work they're doing.
He had high praise for Stephen Wigginton, U.S. Attorney for the southern district of Illinois, who Holder said is "doing a great job."
Wigginton said Holder's goal is to meet with every U.S. attorney.
"We met privately first. Then, he met with the U.S. Attorney management team and then all of the employees in the office," Wigginton said.
Holder thanked a room filled with law enforcement officials -- county and federal prosecutors, federal marshals and others -- for their dedication and all of the things they do "to improve the lives of the people in this district."
Holder assured the law enforcement personnel that they would get help from the U.S. Department of Justice.
"I want to be able to say 20 to 30 years from now that we made a positive difference," Holder said.
He said he was mindful that more police agents are needed and promised that the Department Of Justice would do what it could to "make sure that you have the tools you need," within economic constraints.
Some metro-east residents lack confidence in their local police departments because many of them do not have adequate personnel, and some officers aren't properly trained. Some local departments say they don't have basic tools such as email, cameras, video cameras, reliable cars and finger-printing capabilities to do effective police work.
Holder said he would look at programs where the federal government provides funds to local police agencies for hiring officers, as well as other grant opportunities.
Holder plans to work with Wigginton to better plan strategies with Washington D.C. and the people in St. Clair County.
"We will work together to make our efforts more effective to impact the lives of the people in East St. Louis," he said. "We need to do a good assessment to be effective at our jobs. We have to try to figure out ways to plug the holes. All the answers won't come from Washington D.C."
Holder, in an exclusive interview with a Belleville News-Democrat reporter, said law enforcement alone cannot change the climate in East St. Louis. His message to the residents was that "some support has to come from the people in East St. Louis."
One woman in the audience, who said she's a paralegal with the U.S. attorney's office, told Holder she is a resident of East St. Louis and it hurts her to hear people talk negatively about the city. She said all of the people in East St. Louis are not bad or participating in the violence.
Holder assured her that no one thought that. He said everyone knows there are only a few people who are committing violent crimes. And, it's law enforcement's job to take them out of the community, Holder said.
She thanked him for saying he would do what he could to get more resources to the area to fight the violence.
"We have an opportunity to make East St. Louis a place where people live, raise their kids, and kids can do the things kids want to do," Holder said.
Some in the community say it is so violent that the National Guard should be summoned. Asked whether he thinks the National Guard is needed, Holder said, "I don't think we need to go that far."
He added, "They need to organize and have leaders in East St. Louis who are dedicated to impacting the lives of the people in the community. It has to be a communitywide effort."
He said he gathered a tremendous amount of information about crime in the area during his visit and was taking that information back to Washington D.C., and in conjunction with Wigginton, would determine how best to use law enforcement resources to deal with the situation.
Holder said various societal issues lead to crime: mental health problems, social dysfunction, lack of or minimal amount of education, and men not being in the homes to help raise children.
"In East St. Louis, the problem has been long in the making, so it will take time," Holder said.
But, Holder said, having citizens living in conditions where they are afraid to walk the streets is unacceptable, and he said he will give his best effort to alleviate the situation.
He told the law enforcement personnel, "We have an enormous amount of power. The only thing I am going to ask you to do is to do the right thing. We put people in jail, sue them, do things that have an impact on people's lives. If you have questions, raise them with the U.S. Attorney or raise them with me."
Two days before coming to St. Clair County, Holder was in New Haven, Conn., where he launched an effort called Project Longevity to reduce violence in New Haven, Hartford and Bridgeton, Conn., where there is a gang problem.
"We started with the three cities where the crime is most prevalent, to tell people they will be held accountable for their actions -- the full weight of federal law will be levied at them. We will offer them the opportunity to turn away from violence and we will come up with ways to protect the average citizen. I think we ought to think about trying it here," Holder said.
Wigginton said he would review the program and make a recommendation on whether it would be a good fit for this area.
In addition to commending the work of Wigginton, Holder applauded St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly and other members of the law enforcement community for their efforts to change the climate in East St. Louis and its surrounding communities.
"He was particularly interested in our effort to fight violent crime in and around the metro-east area," Wigginton said. "He wanted to come and see all of the good work we've done. Last year, we set a record for having the most federal cases filed and the largest percentage increase year-to-year over the last several years."
The fiscal year is from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30. During that period, Wigginton said his office filed 415 federal criminal cases.
"We're working very hard. In the last two years we have more than doubled the cases we've filed," Wigginton said.
Contact reporter Carolyn P. Smith at 618-239-2503.