Teen violence is a growing problem resulting from drug wars by rival gangs on the streets and in the city’s public housing complexes, law enforcement and community leaders say.
“It’s all about dealing and selling drugs. These are the individuals who are packing the guns,” said the Rev. Norma Patterson, a community leader. “They are not like the teenagers who used to fight with their fists over tennis shoes or not liking each other. It’s about who’s selling the most drugs and who owes who.”
An investigative reporting project by the Associated Press found that teen violence was growing across the country, mostly in small and medium-sized cities, with Chicago being the exception. East St. Louis was not included because it is under 50,000.
However, local leaders say teen violence in East St. Louis is escalating, especially in three housing complexes: John DeShields, Orr Weathers and the Roosevelt Homes.
Patterson said the violence is happening because young people are trying to revive gangs.
”But, they are not able to get the financial support that they had been able to get in previous years,” she said.
“No jobs and a lack of education are some of the reasons why we are seeing so much violence. And, why do they put the poorest of the poor in one neighborhood or in one or two housing projects and expect them to do well? It’s a systemic racist act that goes on in these communities. The system designed it. So, you have the poorest of the poor dealing drugs and killing each other over them.”
Patterson said she doesn’t blame the children for the violence.
“They are not to blame for the system that is designed for them to fail,” said Patterson, who is the director of the United Congregations of the Metro-East.
According to St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly:
▪ There were 892 requests for charges against teens in 2015. Kelly said 15 juvenile cases were transferred directly to adult court. These were for offenses such as first-degree murder, aggravated battery, firearms violations and armed robbery.
▪ There were 627 petition requests in 2016. One juvenile case was transferred to adult court.
▪ So far in 2017, Kelly’s office has received 314 petitions requesting charges against juveniles. Two were transferred to adult court.
“The trend shows that even though there are fewer overall cases this year, our office is prosecuting more cases through the special provisions that apply to more violent cases among juveniles,” Kelly said. “Violent crime has been going down for two decades overall, but we are now seeing an uptick in violence across the country, and that is not the direction we need to be headed.”
Gun Violence Archive compiled data on teen violence based on police reports and news stories. GVA is a nonprofit corporation formed in 2013 to provide free online public access to information about gun-related violence in the United States. The Associated Press project relied on data compiled by GVA.
GVA cited several high-profile examples of teen violence in East St. Louis, including a 15-year-old who was killed in a shooting after a basketball game on June 11, 2015, and a 16-year-old who was killed in a drive-by shooting on Dec. 31, 2015.
East St. Louis Police Chief Michael Hubbard said the average age of the teenagers who are committing violent crimes today are between 14-18. Previously, they were between the ages of 18-25, he said.
For him, there are a number of factors that contribute to this: poverty, a decrease in the funding source for community programs to address job skills and job training, parenting and life skills, and education.
“Young people are able to access guns more readily than in the past,” Hubbard said. He added that legislation Missouri passed recently making it easier for anyone to get a gun will add to gun accessibility.
East St. Louis Detective Sgt. Gilda Johnson said the guns the children are getting come from residential burglaries and drug dealers. “Like cigarettes and alcohol, you can get a gun just by walking down the street and asking for it,” Johnson said.
“Individuals who are carrying guns feel powerful. They feel they are legitimately successful. If they shoot someone, it makes them feel better. They are shooting in broad daylight now. Years ago, the shootings occurred at night,” Johnson said.
Angela Whitman, who’s known as “Miss Angie” on her syndicated urban radio show, said kids are “out of control.”
“Kids are raising kids. They are friends with their moms. Moms are smoking, drinking and partying with their children. And, there are no fathers in these homes. It’s like every man is for himself,” she said.
Whitman believes the community is failing these teenagers, who are carrying guns and creating havoc in neighborhoods, by not getting involved.
“Instead of helping the police, we are hating them. But, when one of our homes gets broken into, the first thing we do is call the police.”
Patterson said too many children are left alone because their mothers have to work — sometimes two jobs to make ends meet — and because their fathers are not around to mentor them.
“(Grandmothers) are left to tend to the children while Mom is working. The kids are in the streets playing at 9 at night. Granny is in the house asleep. ... They just wander the neighborhood,” Patterson said.
Carolyn P. Smith: 618-239-2503