Guest view: There is progress in cleaning up crime

April 20, 2014 

In 2007, Col. Gregory Gadson, a former West Point football player, lost both his legs to a roadside bomb in Baghdad. After a long, difficult recovery, Gadson became the first paraplegic garrison commander of Fort Belvoir, standing on his prosthetic legs while taking command in 2012.

Unlike Gadson, some veterans cannot succeed, especially when returning to a nation facing a deep crisis of trust. Research shows trust in institutions like corporations, government, media, family, even church is at historic lows for veterans and the public. Without that traditional support, many vets lose hope, turning to drugs or suicide. However, Gadson has a simple message for those facing seemingly hopeless challenges: "Take it one step at a time."

The courage of local law enforcement is often equal to Gadson's, but two years ago the seemingly hopeless challenges to public trust and safety in our own backyard were laid out in the starkest terms. Several deeply impoverished communities have long struggled with high violence, low resources and true corruption -- a supposedly unchangeable state of affairs threatening the economic and moral fabric of our region.

Yet when seeing that steep challenge before us there were clear first steps on the pathway up. We are now decisively, step by step, moving forward. State and federal prosecutions of violent crime and misconduct are significantly up. Dormant money has been used to hire five new police officers in East St. Louis. After much lobbying, Illinois' budget has ensured more academy graduating classes and District 11 manpower increases to fight crime in East St. Louis and surrounding communities.

The temporary drops in crime following special operations by MEGSI, ATF and the FBI have shown with the right manpower and focus, crime can be reduced -- even in places like Washington Park. Eleven public housing security officers were hired through HUD and deputized by Sheriff Rick Watson to arrest and process high-risk suspects directly to jail. The "ban and bar" initiative led by former marshal Terry Delaney and county prosecutors has resulted in more than 500 prosecutions and sustained crime reductions in public housing.

The National Governor's Association has selected St. Clair County for a pilot program to prevent parolees from reoffending. High- risk gun offense probationers are being tracked better, and juvenile issues like truancy that contribute to the "felony factory" are finally being confronted.

The Metro East Police District Act created a commission of law enforcement leaders who have worked with East St. Louis, Brooklyn, Alorton and Washington Park police chiefs and city councils to enact a massive reform of each department's policies and procedures covering everything from basic traffic stops to departmental ethics.

More than 300 man hours of officer training on these new policies have been provided by the state's attorney's office already. After broad public consultation, the commission has now adopted a strategic operations plan of shared services, accountability, budget reform and reconfigured daily operations focused on officer performance and crime reduction metrics.

With the aid of our uniquely strong partner U.S. Attorney Steve Wigginton, the Justice Department has made a serious commitment to helping execute this plan, providing resources and almost daily guidance and consultation from the sharpest criminal justice minds in the country.

The commission is slowly but surely changing the culture, not through some temporary, fleeting takeover that just makes officials feel like they did something and sidesteps tough issues, but by confronting corruption and ethical lapses at the daily, routine level and by working with local residents living in struggling neighborhoods to build law enforcement institutions in which they have ownership.

This a federal, state and local enterprise which has never been done before.

In short, we are moving toward methods that have reduced crime elsewhere and we have turned away from an unacceptable status quo.

Still, we have a very, very long climb ahead of us. Homicides remain way too high and continue to be the main obstacle to improving the perceptions of developers and the public.

As long as young men bleed to death on our streets, progress and trust in the law and the system will remain tenuous. But try we must. Anything less is offensive to the conscience. Building the kind of community we want for our kids depends on it.

This is a mountain that we must climb. Thankfully, Colonel Gadson shows us the way.

How do you rebuild the broken pillars of public safety? One step at a time.

How do you restore trust? One step at a time.

Brendan Kelly is St. Clair County state's attorney.

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