East ‘Safe’ Louis? That’s where the mayor says the city is headed as homicides fall 31%
East St. Louis Mayor Robert Eastern III stopped himself just two sentences into his prepared remarks at Emerson Park’s MetroLink station in late January.
Before the first-term mayor got into his speech about the new public safety center announced that day, he first had to explain his “new call sign” for his city.
“It's not East St. Louis anymore. It's East Safe Louis,” Eastern said, as a few in the crowd chuckled and clapped. “I need everybody to say ‘East Safe Louis.’”
Eastern’s reasoning: Homicides dropped 31% over the past four years, according to data from the Illinois State Police and the city’s police department. Crime, in general, is down 37%, he told the crowd that day.
“People have this narrative of East St. Louis, like there’s some crazy person waiting on every corner to kill you,” said Marie Franklin, a community organizer who’s running against Eastern in April’s mayoral election. “That has never been our story. That has just been a narrative that others have portrayed about us.”
Public Safety Enforcement Group starts
Why violent crime has dropped in the town of 18,000 is a question that produces many answers.
Three years ago, the state police, the city’s police department and community organizations created the Public Safety Enforcement Group. As part of the PSEG partnership, state police help the city’s officers on violent crime investigations. That’s not new; state police have helped with homicides in East St. Louis since the 1980s.
What makes this partnership different is the involvement of the community through the city’s school district and a faith organization, acting as social and spiritual workers, according to those involved.
Leaders say homicides and nonfatal shootings dropped as a result.
“We're definitely heading in the right direction, and we want to sustain that,” said Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly, who formerly served as the St. Clair County state’s attorney. “We're cautiously optimistic that this is the right fuel mixture — this is the right combination of resources and law enforcement and community effort that's needed to turn a place like East St. Louis around.”
There have been drops in East St. Louis homicides before. In 2015, for example, the city recorded 19. Two years later, that figure nearly doubled to 37. In the first two months of 2023, there have been six reported.
Nonfatal shootings also dropped in the past four years. In 2019, law enforcement tracked 121. In 2022, that decreased to 80, according to data from Illinois State Police. This year, there have been 14 nonfatal shootings.
New Police Chief Cantrell Patterson said the extra manpower from state police has led to more routine patrolling — and that’s helped carjackings, auto thefts and home burglaries all drop “pretty significantly.”
“We’ve got a real good working partnership with the Illinois State Police,” Patterson said.
Clearance rates — the percentage of crimes police solve — have improved over the past couple of years. While the rate in East St. Louis reached a peak of 50% in 2019, it trailed off slightly over the next three years.
Homicide cases can take years to solve, meaning the most recent data will only increase over time, according to a spokeswoman for Illinois State Police.
Regardless, these trends are interesting for criminology experts, including Paige Vaughn, an assistant professor at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, who worked as an intern with East St. Louis police from 2016 to 2018 during graduate school.
“East St. Louis has kind of always been pushed to the side,” Vaughn said.
Crime, as a whole, has fallen since the pandemic, according to research from Vaughn’s Ph.D. adviser, Richard Rosenfeld, a University of Missouri-St. Louis criminology professor. The fact that East St. Louis crime dropped since the pandemic may not be unique, she said.
However, crime increased at the national level during the start of the pandemic, Rosenfeld’s research found. The steady homicide and nonfatal shooting figures in East St. Louis from 2019 and 2020 could suggest a positive trend, Vaughn said.
“It's just interesting that they didn't have an increase,” she said.
Former Police Chief Michael Hubbard, who retired in 2018 just before the public safety group started, has also been watching from outside the department. He still lives in town and said he expects the trends to continue.
“I believe the statistics for the next two years will be even lower than where they are right now,” he said.
'Cannot do this without the public'
When state police are dispatched to the scene of a violent crime, fire or car accident, the school district’s Wraparound Wellness Center is called within 15 minutes if a student is involved. If a student commits a crime, is the victim or simply witnesses what happened, the police are trained to call the school district, said Tiffany Gholson, the center’s director.
“In real time, we're supporting our youth or their families in the midst of any traumatic event,” she said.
The school’s social workers, nurses and staff will continue their support afterward, Gholson said.
Before the center started in 2020, the school’s social workers observed children not ready to learn because they’d been involved in or had seen traumatic events. Now, because state police communicate with Gholson, the school knows why and can address healing far sooner.
“We say it’s a marriage — a throuple — when you include the Community Lifeline and the work that they help us do,” Gholson said.
The Lifeline provides a similar service but is mainly intended for the city’s adults. It started as a faith organization connected to New Life Community Church to take care of the social needs of the community, said Wyvetta Granger, the organization’s executive director.
“It's about trying to bring places of healing for the whole man,” she said.
Since the public safety group started in 2020, the school district has helped more than 100 students, and Granger’s organization has helped 200 community members.
Beyond responding to violent crime through grief counseling, Granger said her organization tries to be proactive. They offer training about de-escalation and first aid.
Another underlying goal for Granger has been improving the community’s trust with law enforcement and vice versa.
Previously, she’s observed skepticism of police among East St. Louisans because they didn’t have a strong track record solving violent crime.
What’s more, Granger said, state or city police rarely met with victim’s families for an update.
“They were not happening in our city, probably in any form,” she said.
Now, Granger can assure the families she works with that they can trust the police enough to pick up the phone and report what they saw.
“I think that it is changing. I think trust is being built,” she said. “I think trust is being reestablished, and I think that's what it's going to take to address public safety. I think we cannot do this without the public.”
Granger, a lifelong East St. Louisan, said she observed something different about the approach of this crime-fighting effort: It’s the first time she’s seen law enforcement approach the public and ask for input. In the past, she said, law enforcement simply said, “Here’s what you’re doing.”
And that’s not lost on Kelly, who also witnessed the many unsuccessful attempts to reduce crime during his time as St. Clair’s state’s attorney.
“The problem with some of those approaches is that you're doing things either to the community or for the community — instead of doing things with the community,” he said.
Breaking that culture and the historic struggles of East St. Louis and crime are not lost on Eastern, who wants to think about crime progressively.
“It's not about putting people in jail,” he said. “It's about changing the mindset, so you won't have to put anyone in jail.”
A bad weekend in early February reminds him there is still work to be done, but that doesn’t mean progress hasn’t been made, he said.
“Can you always do better?” Eastern asked. “Yes, you can always achieve more.”