10% of felonies in Madison County come from Missouri residents. Is that a problem?
Two years after the Madison County state’s attorney created a task force to curb crime by Missouri residents, the number of Missourians convicted of felonies in the Metro East county continues to grow.
It was that trend that drove the prosecutor, Tom Haine, to create the Cross-River Crime Task Force, a collaboration of officers from various departments who randomly deploy throughout the county.
Haine says the numbers speak for themselves: The number of Missouri residents convicted of felonies in Madison County more than doubled — from 5% to 10% — over the past 10 years, according to circuit court data.
“This is going to be a place where, if you commit a crime, you are going to face stiff resistance from the law enforcement,” Haine said.
Just how significant the portion of Missouri residents, presumably from the St. Louis area, committing crime in the Illinois suburbs is another question, said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“While that percentage has grown over time, it still remains quite small,” Rosenfeld said.
What do the numbers say?
In 2012, the court tracked 144 felonies committed by Missouri residents. In 2022, that figure stood at 353. The number of total felonies also increased. Ten years ago, the county totaled 2,644 felonies. Last year, there were 3,262.
Specific crimes are a mixed bag year by year.
For homicides, seven of 20 of the county’s murders were committed by Missourians in 2019. Three years later in 2022, it was one in 12.
Retail and vehicle thefts are also up and down year after year. Since 2016, the percentage of Missouri residents committing those crimes has increased from the teens to mid-20s.
To some degree, Madison County’s crime data reflects the regionwide trends, Rosenfeld said.
“That is especially the case with respect to motor vehicle theft,” he said. “Jurisdictions across the country — in the St. Louis area, certainly in Madison County — have experienced quite large increases in motor vehicle theft.”
The motivations for criminals and deployments
When Haine first started as the prosecutor in January 2021, he surveyed area law enforcement. Many agreed that some criminals from the St. Louis area were committing crimes in Madison County and speeding back over the river, knowing local law enforcement generally doesn’t make arrests across the state line.
“We felt like the criminals understood if they could get back across the river the justice system would have a harder time dealing with them,” Haine said. “And we wanted to make sure that we did whatever we could to counteract that.”
The task force uses a core group of 14 officers from 10 departments. The bread and butter of the three commanders and 11 patrolmen is unpredictability, said task force leader Nick Novacich.
The group will team up with another agency, or more, and deploy to that municipality or area in the county on a random day. An area chief could also request the group’s aid on a given day. At the most basic level, license plate readers will be used to stop drivers with warrants or those who committed a major traffic violation.
“I’m talking about people with guns, people with drugs, people who kidnap people and people who carjack people. That is what this unit is geared toward,” Novacich said.
Novacich, also the assistant chief of Granite City’s police department, said the task force isn’t seeking out only Missouri drivers. Rather, the task force looks for plates attached to criminal activity.
“Crime goes both directions across the river,” he said. “So we're targeting criminals. We're not targeting a specific state — or anything like that.”
Novacich said the effort has been successful thus far. For example, one April deployment resulted in 11 felony charges, two seized firearms and a recovered stolen vehicle.
What about the inverse?
Determining how many Illinoisans return the favor on the Missouri side of the state border is not as clear. The equivalent data doesn't exist in the local court system, according to Missouri’s 21st and 22nd judicial circuits that represent St. Louis County and the City of St. Louis, respectively.
However, arrest data, not convictions, from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department shows around 1% to 3% of the most serious felonies — like homicides, rape and arson — come from Illinois residents depending on the year.
A representative from the St. Clair County State’s Attorney’s Office said the neighboring Metro East county also does not keep the same kind of data as Madison.
To Rosenfeld, the difference between the number of Missouri residents committing crime in Madison County and Illinois residents committing crime in St. Louis can be explained simply: More people live on the west side of the Mississippi.
A regional collaboration to address the current crime trends in Madison County makes sense to Dennis Mares, a Southern Illinois University Edwardsville professor of criminal justice.
“Does it solve all problems? Of course it doesn't, and I think everybody realizes that,” Mares said. “But can it reduce things? Absolutely. Can it hold offenders accountable? Absolutely, and I think those are the things we have to do.”
Mares, who’s currently helping local police departments utilize technology to better understand crime, said vehicles and vehicle theft could play a big role in the trend.
Most criminals tend to be repeat offenders and are often younger and lower income. Many might not have a vehicle, he said.
“Not having a vehicle really limits where you can do crime,” Mares said. “But, if all of a sudden you have this large reservoir of vehicles you can basically borrow, that opens up a lot of new opportunities.”
And the criminal justice professor knows vehicle theft all too well. Last summer, three juveniles broke into his Belleville home — demanding his car and money at gunpoint. Mares had no choice but to oblige.
The three ended up back in St. Louis, where they committed more robberies, and ended up getting caught through a license plate reader the next day in East St. Louis by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.
Mares said that proves a point that Rosenfeld, Novacich and Haine also share: Crime doesn’t stop at the river, even if the St. Louis region sometimes treats the river as a border.
“Cooperative efforts on the part of law enforcement officials and other public officials from the St. Louis side and the Illinois side — those efforts need to be strengthened,” Rosenfeld said.
Participation in the task force is voluntary, so it’s not costing taxpayers extra, Haine said.
There was some individual funding from Haine’s office and the Madison County Sheriff’s Office for a single mobile license plate reader for one of the sheriff’s vehicles. Everything else is coming from existing equipment as the participating law enforcement agencies pool their resources, he said.
Asked whether the task force is worth the time and effort to combat just 10% of the county’s total felonies: “Tell that to the victim of somebody whose family member has been killed,” Haine said.
He also said that 10% is significant.
Rosenfeld, whose research focuses particularly on violent crime trends and crime control policy, said the data show nearly 90% of felonies are not committed by Missourians.
“I don't see it as a major problem,” Rosenfeld said. “I'm not suggesting that a task force couldn't be useful. That's something for Madison County law enforcement and other public officials to decide.”
Since the task force's inception in 2021, the number of Missouri residents committing homicides and vehicle theft has decreased. Total felonies and retail theft continue to rise, however.
Haine said the task force is not a “one and done.” As criminals innovate, so too does law enforcement, he said. The collaboration among Madison County departments is their first response to keep crime from trending in the wrong direction.
“Crime breeds crime,” Haine said. “If there's a persistent perception that you can commit a crime and get away with it, that will cause a downward spiral of criminality. We want to make absolutely sure we nip this in the bud and prevent that spiral from happening in Madison County.”