Crime

Washington Park has no full-time police, though board voted last year to hire officers

Apart from Chief Allen Bonds, Washington Park has no full-time police officers, even though the village board of trustees gave Mayor Rickie Thomas permission to hire some more than a year ago.

Village trustees Mary McKinney and Juliette Gosa say that 10 part-time officers are not enough to keep Washington Park’s nearly 4,000 residents safe, considering the town’s rate of violent crime, including murders on consecutive days last July.

“I don’t know why he refuses to hire them,” McKinney said of Thomas. “At our meeting before last, he hired four more part-time police officers. Why do you keep hiring all of these part timers?”

McKinney and Gosa rallied residents outside village hall Monday to demand answers to a list of grievances with the mayor, including the shortage of police protection. Most called for Thomas to resign.

When he was sworn in as Washington Park’s mayor in May of 2017, Thomas said, the police department had “only two or three part-time police officers.” Full-time officers can be hired soon, now that the village has contracted with the Columbia law firm of Crowder and Scoggins to represent the village’s fire and police board, he said, explaining that he wants to be sure the hiring is done legally.

He said those who are calling for his resignation are just political foes.

“The village is safe,” he said.

But it isn’t, others insist.

Henry Newell, a former chairman of the village’s police and fire board for 23 years, said Thomas is hiring only part-time officers so he can control them and avoid oversight from the commissioners.

Full-time officers are mandated by the Fraternal Order of Police, he said, and are subject to hiring, firing, discipline and all other recommendations by the police and fire board of commissioners, not the mayor’s office.

“Rickie Thomas is new on the block. I have been over the park commissioners, code enforcement , public works. He is using these auxiliary officers to do his deeds,” Newell said. “Regular police officers wouldn’t go for this. He’s using part-time officers and doesn’t want to hire full time officers.”

At the same time, Thomas controls who serves as members of the police and fire board.

Herman Tolar was appointed as a board commissioner under former mayor Ann Rodgers, but was removed without notice during a special meeting of the village board, McKinney said.

“If you don’t do what Rickie tells you, he gets rid of you. He did not tell that man that he was letting him go. They had a special meeting and Rickie didn’t tell him then,” she said. “I got a phone call from him asking me whether I knew he had been released from the board. He learned from another trustee.”

McKinney said neither she nor Gosa were not informed of the special meeting because their dissenting votes would have conflicted with the quorum Thomas arranged to support his agenda.

“Both of us should have been notified. He could have texted us,” she said. “As long as he had his four votes there he did not care. I did not go into Washington Park to fight him. I went into politics to make Washington Park better.”

Thomas said Tolar’s three-year term on the fire and police board expired and that it’s his choice whether or not to reappoint him or not. He also said the Washington Park FOP disbanded over a year ago because the members stopped paying their dues.

Tolar says he still hasn’t been notified of his removal from the fire and police board.

“We had a meeting two weeks ago and the mayor announced he wanted to hire full time police officers. I was not told then that I was no longer on the board and I have not seen him so I was under the impression when I left that meeting that I was still a commissioner,” Tolar said. “I have no issues per se, I just wanted to see more full-time police officers in Washington Park. ... In my opinion, if the village is going to attract business or any kind of investments, it needs a strong police department with full-time police officers.

“As far as I know, the process to hire full-time officers has not started yet.”

As they demonstrated Monday, residents were ordered by part-time police officers to move from the parking lot at village hall.

“This is public property and we have the right to be here,” Gosa told them, turning to their direction several times as she protested. “We are fighting for you. We want you to be full-time.”

Shortly before they assembled, Washington Park Police Chief Allen Bonds confirmed, two men were involved in a shooting and high-speed chase from the “orange store” parking lot on 43rd Street and the 4100 block of Bunkum Road.

A part-time officer pursued two suspects who sped away in separate vehicles, but lost sight of them at 25th and State Street in East St. Louis. No one was injured, Bonds said.

“I was at work Monday and breaking news came on there was a shooting in Washington Park,” McKinney said. “What can I do? The village is not safe. We need full-time officers.”

Carolyn P. Smith has worked for the Belleville News-Democrat for 18 years and currently covers breaking news in the Metro-East. She graduated from the Journalism School at the University of Missouri at Columbia and says news is in her DNA.
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