Metro-East News

Center for Racial Harmony event highlights differences between troubled Ferguson police and metro-east departments

Local police chiefs and prosecutors agreed that positive relations between community members and police hinge on trust and communication during a dinner meeting at the Fairview Heights municipal center Thursday night.

They also agreed that Ferguson-type unrest can happen anywhere, but a big reason why it hasn’t in the metro-east has a lot to do with how police departments are managed and paid for.

St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly said communication was “a critical component” in relations between citizens and police.

“The challenge that’s facing us and why we have the problems we have is this erosion of trust,” Kelly said. “There’s a lot of cynicism out there. The only way you’re going to overcome that is doing what we doing here today; Coming together.”

The Department of Justice’s Ferguson report was a hot topic of conversation among panelists. Police chiefs Eric Van Hook, of O’Fallon, and Nick Gailius, of Fairview Heights, pointed to the way Illinois law governs local police operations as one reason why metro-east communities differ from ones like Ferguson, Mo.

For one thing, where Ferguson and some other North County police departments’ traffic citations generate as much as a third of their respective cities’ general revenue, funds generated by traffic citations in O’Fallon and Fairview Heights each only total 0.7 percent of each city’s budget. For another, state law effective this year prohibits police departments in Illinois from using ticket quota systems, a practice many departments had already begun to abandon on their own. Finally, the municipal court system—the cause of so much frustration in St. Louis County—doesn’t exist in Illinois.

Gailius was troubled when he read the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report, saying “(the report) is stark, it is jaw-dropping, it is not policing that I know of in Illinois.”

“As a police chief, you can’t ignore the Department of Justice findings from the City of Ferguson investigation. When you do policing for profit, that doesn’t end well,” Van Hook said. “I could not imagine coming to work with my city administrator telling me ‘Your officers need to generate so many tickets today or they may not have jobs.’”

Stephen Wigginton, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois, nonetheless warned that “we’re only one shooting away from another Ferguson in another city.”

While Wigginton said he has “great confidence in law enforcement officers in Southern Illinois,” he does no favors for the ones who violate citizens’ rights. He said in his four-year tenure in his post, he’s indicted three police chiefs, two chiefs of detectives and at least a half dozen patrol officers.