The three candidates for Belleville mayor in the April 9 election say crime is one of the most important issues facing the city, echoing the sentiments of residents.
Incumbent Mayor Mark Eckert, Ward 5 Alderman Joe Hayden and Ward 7 Alderman Phil Elmore mostly agree on the concept of a crime-free housing program, and that the Police Department needs a new building and records management system.
The candidates differ on how to pay for such projects. They also disagree on reopening the west end police substation and how to increase the police force.
Earlier this year, the News-Democrat interviewed 50 people who live or work in the city and found that their No. 1 concern is crime.
Crime in context
Eckert, of the Belleville Good Government Party, said public safety is an issue for any mayor, and he tries to see it from a victim's perspective.
"When you're the victim, crime is not only very scary but it's frustrating and it hurts," Eckert said.
But the types and numbers of crimes in Belleville are also typical for a city this size, Eckert said.
The city is the largest south of Springfield, with more than 44,000 residents and a daily drive through population of 90,000. The county's criminal courts and jail are also located in the city.
"Things happen every day ... but I do not feel unsafe in this city," Eckert said.
Some residents feel otherwise, said Hayden, an independent with the Unified Independent Coalition for All of Belleville.
"Stats mean nothing when the people don't feel safe," Hayden said. "That perception becomes the reality."
And, it's not just the perception of people living in Belleville but also people looking in, Hayden said.
Hayden said he heard secondhand of a conversation between a mother and daughter in Sparta. The daughter wanted to go to Lincoln Theater with her friends, but the mom forbade it and said she could go to Fairview Heights or O'Fallon instead.
Elmore, an independent, and Hayden both say Eckert should have planned and budgeted during his two terms to hire more officers, and only recently pushed for a mandatory crime-free housing program and researched a new police records management system.
"Now we're paying the price for complacency and inactivity," Elmore said.
Eckert said he thinks Police Chief Bill Clay and the Police Department do excellent work.
And, he said, the fact the city did not have to lay off any officers during the recession means the city managed its money well and sees public safety as a priority.
"We do not have our head in the sand about crime," Eckert said.
Statistics from 2012 have not been released, but the city's 2011 crime statistics show decreases in most categories of violent crime.
For example, the city went from three murders in 2010 to zero in 2011. Aggravated battery calls went down 26.49 percent, thefts went down 7.33 percent and burglaries went down 3.15 percent.
There were increases in the categories of motor vehicle theft, which went from 86 to 97, or 12.79 percent. The number of forcible rapes went from 32 reports to 33 and arson calls went from 23 to 24.
Officers also made more drug arrests. The largest jump was in controlled substance arrests, from 94 to 148.
The numbers don't lie, Eckert said. Residents need not be afraid, but do need to be aware of their surroundings, lock their doors and not walk alone at night -- true in any city.
Elmore said the city doesn't have a murder problem but there are more "neighborhood crimes" such as vandalism and break-ins.
"It's unnerving to people," Elmore said.
Criminals also seem to be younger and more brazen, Elmore said. When kids steal from unlocked cars and get away with it, they become brave and check for unlocked garage doors. Then the time comes when they no longer care if a home is locked and break in anyway.
"Do we have a crime problem?" Elmore asked. "Yes, we do. But it's fixable."
Money for officers
Elmore said his priority would be to hire at least five more officers.
Hayden said he will aim for 10 additions because that's what Clay's wish list in 2009 asked for 10 more hires. Hayden might even aim for 20 hires to meet FBI guidelines for number of officers recommended for Belleville's population.
Hayden said such expansion is only possible if the city undergoes complete fiscal reform. Hayden wants residents to understand the changes will not happen overnight.
Critics say Eckert has only increased the city's number of sworn officers by one officer, to 82.
The city had 81 officers, including the chief, when Eckert, as an alderman, was appointed mayor in 2004. He was elected in 2005 and re-elected in 2009.
Before that, the city added four officers in 2001-2002.
Eckert said the city would like to hire more officers but he challenges his opponents to explain how they will come up with the money.
It would cost an estimated $75,000 for each new officer's first year, Eckert said. The cost includes training, equipment, salary and benefits.
Hiring five officers would create the need for another squad car. The city might be able to use tax increment financing money for the car, but definitely not on salary, Eckert said.
The Police Department budget is about 35 percent, or $9.2 million, of the city's general fund expenditures.
Eckert said the city got $1.2 million last year from a 0.25 percent sales tax increase that went into effect in 2012. Without that revenue, the city might have had to cut police staff.
Eckert said revenue from video gaming machines could possibly go toward hiring more officers if the source of money is stable.
Elmore said the city has TIF money to spend on remodeling the Police Department and other improvements. Instead, Elmore said Eckert supported spending TIF for Kroger to build a new grocery store and on developing Bicentennial Park off 20th Street.
Hayden questions Eckert's recent statements of plans to hire an economic developer when there is supposedly no money to hire cops.
Until the city has money to hire more officers, Eckert said he's in favor of improving the computer system so officers spend less time on reports and have information on scene to make them safer.
Eckert said he can relate because he was a former St. Clair County Sheriff's deputy, volunteer firefighter for Signal Hill and ambulance driver for the former Pete Gaerdner Funeral Home.
The Police Department computer records system has been updated once since 1991. The city made recent strides to partner with St. Clair County to share a new system.
Since Elmore announced his plans to run for mayor, he emphasized the need for computer and technology upgrades in City Hall.
Eckert said the city could use community resource officers -- paid, civilian positions -- to handle non-emergency, non-violent incidents such as stolen bicycle reports or delivering paperwork to the courthouse.
Hayden favors reviving the city's auxiliary officer volunteer force. This way, police officers divert their overtime on events such as parades and festivals to proactive police work.
But Hayden's opponents say it's not realistic to use auxiliary officers because of liability issues and agreements with the police union.
The city's auxiliary officer force disbanded about 2007 because of a new state law that requires all conservators of the peace to attend Police Academy if they want to have the same authority as officers, such as make arrests.
This means that a volunteer auxiliary officer would have to pay for the same training as a full-time, paid police officer.
Volunteers would also need to find time to attend the academy -- more than eight hours a day for 10 to 12 weeks or part-time on weekends for more than a year.
Hayden said it doesn't hurt to solicit auxiliary volunteers since there are many military and law enforcement retirees in the metro-east.
"I don't have a defeatist attitude. I have a can-do attitude," Hayden said. "If they want to put up roadblocks, that's fine."
West end substation
Hayden also believes reopening the west end police substation will save officers the time it takes to commute between west Belleville to police headquarters and spend more time patrolling.
The substation should be reopened with a dispatcher there to establish a 24/7 presence, Hayden said.
Right now, if there was an emergency, residents who go into the station would naturally assume it is staffed. Instead they find an empty building with only a secure door and phone connection to a dispatcher downtown.
"Creating a false sense of security is a liability," Hayden said.
The substation is currently leased to the Metro East Auto Theft Task Force, which occupies the building during the day.
Eckert said when he became mayor, former Police Chief Terry Delaney asked to close the station. Delaney said closing the substation means six officers could patrol the city instead of sit in a building.
Elmore said officers can't be everywhere so residents need to be the eyes and ears of the community.
Elmore said he helped start eight Neighborhood Watches his first year as alderman. More social interaction encourages neighbors to help each other by picking up newspapers in the driveway so burglars don't know tenants are on vacation or calling if a garage door is left open.
Elmore said he would also work with at-risk youth. If the city could spend money on sending students to Kansas City for the All-American City event, then the city should also work with those who need help, he said.
Elmore also created the Tour de Belleville bicycle ride, which raised thousands of dollars to buy safety equipment for the city, from emergency call towers to school crossing signs.
Elmore said installing cameras throughout the city will also curb crime.
The city has cameras at buildings like City Hall and the sewer plant, but not places such as city parks.
Elmore's opponents both say surveillance cameras are only effective if someone is monitoring them. And, if that's the case, why not have that officer patrolling instead, they ask.
When Eckert was re-elected in 2009, he said he would work to get a new downtown police station.
Police Department staff are now spread across three buildings. The main police offices are in City Hall, which was built in 1957 when the city had 40 officers.
In coming weeks, the city will make a request for qualifications to study whether it makes more sense to build a new station or upgrade the current facility.
Hayden said his opponents only recently started acknowledging that crime is an issue in the city while he has made it his campaign's No. 1 priority.
He recognizes how high crime rates impact the city. If the city reduces crime, then more people will shop in Belleville and residents will not move away. This will preserve the city's tax base, Hayden said, so the city has money to maintain its infrastructure.
"If you don't have a safe city, everything else crumbles."
Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/BNDBelleville.