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Public safety vs. city funding: a tough balance in East St. Louis

A peace rally last month outside the Orr-Weathers public housing project in East St. Louis was held after a police officer was shot there two days before.
(Joseph Leahy/St. Louis Public Radio)
A peace rally last month outside the Orr-Weathers public housing project in East St. Louis was held after a police officer was shot there two days before.

When it’s “last call” on weekends for St. Louis bars and clubs, East St. Louis’ nightlife is just getting started. The city’s slack liquor laws allow nightclubs and liquor stores to operate well into the morning. Many critics say the laws are the root of the city’s chronic violent crime.

The problem poses a delicate balancing act for Mayor Alvin Parks who says East St. Louis’ late-night entertainment industry is keeping the city alive.

A Senator's strong words 

Earlier this year, US Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. came to the Orr-Weathers public housing project in East St. Louis with strong words for Mayor Alvin Parks.

“We need the cooperation of the city, Mayor,” Durbin said. “We need you to do your part, which means to make sure that we reign in this club  scene, stop these late-night liquor sales, put a police force on the street that can help us keep this area safe.”

Eleven days later an officer was shot in the face outside the building where Durbin spoke, prompting more pressure on the mayor to curb nightclub hours and liquor sales.

Adults and children held a peace rally at the housing project to protest the violence. Among them was Cortez Slack, who grew up across the street from an all-night liquor store in East St. Louis. Today, he is the security coordinator for East St. Louis’s Public Housing Authority and echoes Durbin’s call.

“I think that the senator has a point,” Slack said. “It’s no good for those clubs or those liquor establishments to be open at those times. It’s not. It’s not.”

The Catch-22

But with a stagnant local economy, and about a fifth of the city’s 29,000 residents in public housing, Mayor Parks says that curbing nightclubs and liquor stores by 1 a.m. would only make things worse.    

“The fact of the matter is 90 percent of their income comes after 12 o’clock. And, I’d say another 75 percent of that actually comes after one o’clock,” Parks said. 

Parks says a significant portion of the City Hall’s budget is funded by this business, including the police department’s 47 officers. This month the mayor laid off the department’s entire support staff.

The problem puts Parks in a Catch-22: loose liquor laws and late-night clubs may breed violence, but the revenue they generate stabilizes the local economy and helps pay for police security.  

Parks, who doubles as the city’s liquor commissioner, has lately adopted a nuanced approached the problem.

“As the liquor commissioner we have latitude with those kinds of hours,” Parks said. “We have an understanding that if necessary on a temporary basis we can shut it down at whatever time it needs to be shut down.”

Last month, after a weekend of multiple shootings outside two night clubs, Parks put the brakes on late-night liquor sales, but only for a week. And, he says he’ll do it again the next time violence flares.

The Police presence - or lack thereof

Rick Rosenfeld is a criminologist at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. He says a permanent ban might go further to reduce crime but it’s no silver bullet either.

“Simply imposing greater restrictions on those businesses is not cutting to the root of the problems,” he said. “The root of the problems have to do with far-reaching economic dislocation, high levels of poverty, increasing levels of social isolation for the remaining residents of east St. Louis,” Rosenfeld said. 

East St. Louis Police Chief Michael Floore tends to agree that the city’s rampant violent crime has less to do nightclubs and liquor stores. 

“It’s more about not having enough police officers on the street,” he said. “We need more police officers to get rid of the crime that we have.”

Most officials, including Senator Durbin and Mayor Parks, agree that more police officers are needed to protect the public.

With severe budget constraints, however, Parks has again taken a unique approach by leaning on nightclubs and local businesses to pay directly for extra late night patrols on weekends.

But, some residents, like Yolanda Sumrall, have little confidence in the local police force. She points, for instance, to the city’s previous police chief, who recently pleaded guilty to stealing evidence and lying to federal investigators.

“We need more police officers because our officers … ain't right,” Sumrall said. “You know how they say there are good cops and bad cops? We have some that are good and some that are crooked.”

For now, East St. Louis will be making do with all the help it can get. 

  • Web Extra: An interview with Senator Dick Durbin on East St. Louis - his hometown: