Belleville

July 25, 2014

West-end residents, businesses want action after shooting

A crowd of about 75 residents and business owners on Friday asked city leaders to take "immediate action" on issues at an apartment complex that was the site of a shooting Monday.

The group met for nearly two hours Friday for the monthly meeting of the West Belleville Promotional Committee, held at Lindenwood University-Belleville, to share concerns with city and county officials.

Committee members voted to ask city officials and police to address the problems at 7701 W. Main St., where a man was shot as suspects opened fire on the car he was sitting in with a group of people.

POLICE ACTION

Belleville Police Chief William Clay said his officers have aggressively investigated the case, which resulted in the arrest of at least one person.

Clay assured residents that the shooting was not random. He said it was a dispute that started elsewhere that moved to the apartment complex.

A police officer responded to the call in 30 seconds, showing that Belleville officers are always actively patrolling the area, Clay said.

Leon J. Venson Jr., 22, of the 2100 block of Scheel Street in Belleville, was charged Thursday with felony aggravated battery of a firearm and felony aggravated discharge of a firearm.

The St. Clair County State's Attorney's Office also is looking into state misdemeanor criminal housing management charges, which could result in an injunction on the rental business, Clay said.

Clay said the Police and Housing departments have worked vigilantly in recent months, especially with the backing of the Crime-Free Housing ordinance, to address issues at the apartment complex.

In one instance, the city intervened to help stop large groups of men who gathered to play basketball late into the night, leading to fights and alcohol and drug misuse.

"If you stop the little things, you stop the big things from happening," Clay said.

The day after the shooting, police accompanied the property owner in serving some of the tenants at the complex with eviction notices, said Belleville Sgt. William Herling, who implements the Crime-Free Housing program.

Now, four of the eight tenants are in the process of eviction, requiring them to leave in 10 days or appeal. Two of the evictions are related to the shooting and the other two resulted from issues of overcrowding, warrant arrests and incidents involving marijuana, Herling said.

STRONGER PENALTIES

Businessman Roger Wigginton, co-chairman of the committee, initially asked members to demand the city revoke operating permits for the rental property.

Wigginton and other neighbors said the apartment building has been the site of drug deals, loitering, overcrowding, loud music and other nuisances that escalated into the shooting this week.

One resident said that the apartment building was the reason she didn't allow her daughter to bike to and from school.

"We have to take that cancer and we have to cut it out," Wigginton said as he urged committee members to send a message that they wanted the apartment building owner out of business. "We've got to stop pussy-footin' around. If we can't stand together, what the hell are we all doing at this meeting?"

Some attendees, however, questioned the effectiveness, ethics and legality over such action.

The Rev. Mark Wiesner, pastor of Signal Hill Lutheran Church, said it is one thing to say that the violations at the apartment building are intolerable but another to demand the business be shut down.

Ward 2 Alderwoman Melinda Hult cautioned attendees not to act out of emotion and in a way that calls for "bigger government."

Instead of just looking to the police and city officials to solve problems, residents should try to talk to the landlord directly, too, Hult said.

Clay agreed that city officials and law enforcement can only do so much, and it is up to building owners and landlords to manage their own properties.

CRIME-FREE EFFECTIVENESS

The Crime-Free program cannot stop someone from deciding to shoot another person, but the ordinance can help landlords screen tenants who may engage in activities that attract crime, Clay said.

Between police and housing code enforcement officers, the apartment complex had 65 calls for service this year, which is high volume for that time frame but on par with some other apartment buildings.

Clay reminded attendees that the west part of Belleville has one of the lowest crime rates in the city. Most of the calls for service are proactive, generated by Belleville officers initiating contact, instead of reacting to incidents.

"If the standard is that no crimes will ever happen in Belleville, that's just not realistic," Clay said. "Where you have people, you have crime."

Belleville is part of the greater St. Louis area and does not exist in a vacuum, and crimes occur across geographical boundaries, Clay said.

Still, attendees said they believe better communication among the Belleville Police Department and the city's Housing Department, and with the St. Clair County Sheriff's Department, will help crime prevention.

Belleville resident Patty Gregory, who organizes Art on the Square and is co-chair of the west end group, said the city's new crime-free housing program needs to be stronger.

She said Fairview Heights authorities require landlords to take a nine-hour course while Belleville's course is just 90 minutes.

A committee of residents, landlords, city officials and other stakeholders worked on the city of Belleville's Crime-Free Housing ordinance for a year leading up to its implementation in November.

The ordinance requires landlords to take a course through Belleville unless they already are certified in another city, and each rental unit has to be registered with the city each year for $25.

The Crime-Free ordinance also calls for landlords and rental property owners to evict tenants facing felony or misdemeanor charges committed at the property.

St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson said at the west end meeting that the county is considering a new housing nuisance abatement program that mirrors Belleville's ordinance.

SOCIAL ISSUES

Part of the discussion at the meeting focused on how criminal activity committed by young black males in the community is part of a greater problem stemming from socio-economic and race issues.

Attendees also said it is crucial to bring black residents in the community to the table to share in finding solutions.

Barb Ducey, president of the Signal Hill Neighborhood Association, said the association plans on going door-to-door on West Main Street in the area to ask all residents about their concerns and how to fix these problems.

Paula Jones, co-founder of Racial Harmony, said community members need to be brave and upfront in talking about the perception and reality of black men committing crimes against other black men.

"We don't want to isolate a certain group, but it has to be talked about, not just in Belleville, to make real changes and help reconstruct these lives," Jones said

Clay said residents should have honest discussions on these issues.

"I'm a black man but I live in reality," Clay said.

Wigginton said the issue isn't so much about blacks committing crimes as any residents committing crimes. There are black residents in the city who are good, law abiding tenants, Wigginton said.

"I don't care if they are purple, green or orange," Wigginton said. "They deserve to live in a place free of crime."

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 618-239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDJLee.

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