Metro-East News

East St. Louis has more crime in the metro-east. So why does it have fewer police officers?

East St. Louis has more crime and fewer police officers than it should have, compared with comparably sized cities in the metro-east

The city of 27,000, which has had 32 homicides so far this year, should have at least 62 sworn police officers, according to a U.S. Justice Department report. Instead it has 43.

“Do we need more police? Yes. Can we afford more? No,” East St. Louis City Manager Daffney Moore said.

In surrounding cities, such as Belleville, O’Fallon, Fairview Heights and Swansea, there is less crime and a higher police visibility. The Justice Department study says that’s important to maintaining public safety and deterring crime, bringing businesses to the community and protecting residents.

While the Illinois State Police and St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department has assisted in the past, St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly said more officers are needed in East St. Louis.

“The East St. Louis Police Department is overwhelmed and there aren’t enough officers from the state or the Sheriff’s Department to fill that gap,” Kelly said. “The rising crime in St. Louis and an insufficient number of officers in East St. Louis are proving to be a deadly mix.”

Kelly helped form the Metro East Police Commission to provide better direction for the police department and bring it in line with other police departments. “The Metro East Police Commission has provided support in terms of training, policy and pointing the way towards best practices that reduce violence, but if there aren’t enough officers to execute those practices, then the violence will continue,” he said.

A federal study titled “Policing: Strength In Numbers, concluded that a strong police presence keeps communities safe.

According to the study, there are about 2.61 sworn officers per 1,000 residents nationwide, and 2.32 sworn officers per 1,000 residents in Illinois. East St. Louis has about 27,000 residents and should have a minimum of 62 sworn officers to be comparable with Illinois, and 71 to be comparable with the rest of the country, the report says. But when adjusted for the amount of crime there, East St. Louis should have 173 police officers, the study concluded.

The study said the number of officers should be determined not just by population but by the officer’s workload as well. The federal study says the “level of reported crimes is one of the key factors in the distribution of personnel in any police agency.”

Statistically speaking, East St. Louis last year had a rate of 2,828 violent crimes per 100,000 people (757 actual), compared with 436 for the state of Illinois and 386 nationally per 100,000, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.

An East St. Louis officer can expect to encounter an average of 32 violent crimes per year ... more than three times as officers in Cairo, Illinois, the runner-up, the study said.

More than a dozen East St. Louis residents were asked at random whether they feel safe in their city. Most said they feel East St. Louis police do a good job, but did not want to give their names.

Lillie Butler, a lifelong resident, said she would like to see more police officers on the streets to make her feel safer. She recalled a time when she felt very safe living in East St. Louis. “We need enough police officers to cover our streets ... not just for murders, but for break-ins, robberies and other crimes. Senior citizens are fearful because most of their husbands or wives have passed away and they live alone,” she said.

“Lots of people try to get into their homes before dark, especially seniors. It’s so dark here. We need lights and more police officers. Some of the police officers who have to respond to calls are fearful for their lives because it’s dark (in the neighborhoods). We need more lights to make them safe as they drive up and down the streets. And, we need more police officers in the department so they can have someone to watch their back. Public safety is very important. We need to feel like they do in other communities around us ... safe,” Butler said.

One young man who refused to give his name said he carries a own gun to protect himself because he does not trust the police department. “When you call them they take their time coming. I carry my own (gun) to protect me.”

Manpower helps deter crime

Seven of East St. Louis’ 43 police officers are out on workers’ compensation or personal issues. Of the 32 homicides this year, only seven have been solved. The city rarely calls in the Major Case Squad to assist in murder investigations.

“Without manpower there is little to no productivity,” newly appointed Police Chief Jerry Simon said. “Public safety should be No. 1. Businesses won’t come to places where they feel unsafe. Residents tend to move away if they are not comfortable. Children and young adults won’t feel a need to assist the police in catching the bad guys if they feel they won’t be protected by the police. Without interaction between police and citizens, crimes that occur take longer to solve.”

Simon said the department is currently doing what other departments are doing to get the best candidates. “We do an extensive background check, a physical and psychological test, a written test, a drug test,” he said

“Without proper staffing you go from call to call. We’ve been retroactive rather than having the opportunity to do proactive policing.”

Simon recalled a time when East St. Louis has nearly 100 police officers. He thinks the department could manage with 55 officers, but he agrees with the federal study that more are needed and would heighten police presence in the community.

“With the proper manpower, you can plan for vacation, personal days, regular days off for officers and schedule training more proficiently,” Simon said.

The department has a budget of $3.8 million and a hefty overtime payroll. Simon said he and city leaders are working to hire more officers, but money is an issue.

Another problem for the city is getting qualified applicants. “We put a list out and only six people showed up for the test. And, only two of those passed the agility test.” Simon said some other nearby police departments do lateral hires, which means a certified officer, no matter the department, can be hired by any police department and they can start to work right away.

“That officer would have already been through the police academy and be certified,” Simon said. He said he plans to explore that with the city manager and other city leaders.

Proactive policing is the practice of deterring criminal activity by showing police presence and engaging the public to learn their concerns.

East St. Louis officers are constantly running from call to call, which limits their ability to do proactive police work to prevent crime. Neighboring department heads said they believe proactive policing in which you engage the public is very effective in deterring crime.

Moore, the city manager, said per the city’s union contract the number of officers the city should have is 60-plus. She believes the city can get by with the current number, but she also is working to increase the workforce.

“We need to look at how we structure our shifts and when the most calls are coming in. We need to look at staffing hours better and how we respond,” she said.

The department also needs needs updated technology, Moore said. Currently, police officers have to return to the police department inside of city hall to complete police reports instead of doing them on laptops in their squad cars.

Belleville has most officers

Belleville has a population of nearly 45,000 and the police department covers 23 square miles. Belleville Police Chief Bill Clay said the department employs 84 police officers and the police budget is nearly $10 million. There is a turnover rate of about 5 percent, he said. Asked whether he felt stability is important to good public safety, Clay said, “Yes, as in any organization.”

Clay said he holds his officers accountable by ensuring they adhere to federal, state and local laws. “They are also required to follow the department policy manual and daily testing requirements. Officers also undergo mandatory drug testing,” he said.

To address criminal activity, Clay said the department has implemented several initiatives and special training: Safe Street operations; Nite Lite detail in the downtown business district; parole and probation compliance details; sex offender registration details; a Blue Team Robbery detail; DEA task force member; school resource officers at both high schools; code enforcement officers who enforce the crime-free housing ordinance; crisis intervention officer certification; Narcan training and certification, and others.

Fairview Heights Police Chief Nick Gailius, who has been leading the police department since 2010, said the department employs 44 sworn police officers and the population in Fairview Heights is a little over 17,000. The Police Department budget is $8 million.

He said a consulting firm hired by the department determined how many officers the city needed.

“Police officers by in large are good people who want to help others. And hiring the best candidates will ensure your community is kept safe,” Gailius said.

“We have a consortium of police departments who work together to recruit and put candidates through a testing process, a thorough background check, and a polygraph test. If the candidates pass all of these tests, he is given a psychological exam by a psychologist,” he explained. The officers have an eight-month probationary period, including 12 weeks of field training with direct supervision from an experienced officer, Gailius said.

Fairview Heights doesn’t see a lot of violent crime, but deals with a lot of retail theft because of all of the stores located there.

The most prevalent crime is shoplifting, Gailius said. To date, there have been three robberies in Fairview Heights. Assault and battery crime is up from 44 to 60 this year, he said. The department has made 262 fugitive arrests, 154 DUI arrests, and 16 firearm arrests.

St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson, said, “Policing is a manpower-driven business. You can’t buy robots and replace people with machines. You have to have bodies and cars in the streets.” The department’s budget, which is set by the St. Clair County Board, is somewhere around $2.4 million. Watson said “It’s money well spent, and he said the department could use more police. Currently, there are approximately 50 officers in the department.

Watson said the county is different from local municipalities in that everything is close for municipalities. “We’re trying to cover 700 square miles,” he said.

Watson agreed that high police visibility is a deterrent to crime. “Criminals look for easy targets,” he said. The county has had two homicides this year. The biggest crimes for deputies usually are property crimes and domestic calls are their main calls, he said.

Swansea Police Chief Steve Johnson said Swansea has a relatively low crime rate, but there are areas in the village where police receive more calls for service than others. He said he receives a lot of calls from residents who complain about suspicious things they see in certain areas.

The department has 21 police officers, including the chief, for a village of 14,000.

Swansea police officers get out of their cars and engage citizens on a regular basis. “It’s part of everything we do,” said Johnson. Officers do what Johnson called “directed patrols,” meaning officers get out and do foot patrols. They walk to businesses, in the parks and neighborhoods. Swansea also has a bike patrol.

“Residents are very involved. They demand that we do our jobs. “Community involvement is absolutely critical,” he said.

In O’Fallon where Chief Eric Van Hook leads the police department, there are 47 sworn police officers in a city of 29,000. So far this year, there have been nine rapes, eight robberies and no homicides. Crime is relatively low overall.

“With the growth O’Fallon has experienced and will continue to experience, we are reviewing officer allocation and studying impacts of future growth. The arrival of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital will undoubtedly put some stress on our staffing so we will continue to evaluate our levels and add as we see fit,” Van Hook said. The department has a budget of $5.8 million

Police work can be stressful, and police officers are not always respected in every circle, but Van Hook described the job as an honorable and noble profession.

“The vast majority of citizens respect the police and the work we do. And, the vast majority of officers believe in the work they do. The profession won’t make you rich, but it will reward you in many other ways,” he said.

Carolyn P. Smith: 618-239-2503

Police manpower in St. Clair County

Following are cities with the number of police officers followed by the number of people who live there:

  • East St. Louis: 43 officers, 27,000
  • Belleville: 84 officers, 45,000
  • Fairview Heights: 44 officers, 17,000
  • St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department: 50 officers, 264,052 (St. Clair County population)
  • Swansea: 21 officers, 14,000
  • O’Fallon: 47 officers, 25,000

Source: Police departments and census bureau