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‘We Need To Get Back To Trials’: St. Louis Mayor Says COVID Pause Triggered Unrest At Downtown Jail

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson was sworn into office a year ago, on April 18, 2017.
File photo / David Kovaluk / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson is staying busy in her final three months in office.

Three days after detainees seized a floor at the City Justice Center, breaking out of their cells and injuring a guard, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson said she believes COVID-19 is to blame for many of the jail’s problems.

The Missouri Supreme Court has put jury trials on hold for nearly a year as the pandemic drags on. Visitors have been barred from the downtown facility to stop the spread of disease, and 14-day quarantines are required for newcomers.

“People are there longer than they normally would be,” Krewson explained on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “And the uncertainty of that, I'm certain, causes a lot of stress and consternation. I think that's kind of an overarching thing.”

The mayor has convened a panel, led by former Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Wolff, to look into conditions at the justice center. But she said she believes the court system needs to start moving forward for the sake of those exercising their right to a jury trial.

“Having no trials for almost a year has been really tough,” she reiterated. “And that's not put on our local judges. That's the Missouri Supreme Court who determines that. But we need to get back to trials. We need to move some of these cases.”

Krewson also discussed a “major upgrade” to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s 911 dispatch system, which will allow the city to prioritize urgent calls. Previously, nonemergency calls went into the same queue.

“It's just a long-needed upgrade to that system,” she said of the new software. “And like everything in this city, it's always about the economics, especially this year, when we are projecting almost a $70 million reduction in our revenue.”

Still, she said, retaining experienced dispatchers remains a big problem.

“We have a high turnover in our dispatch, because people get a lot of good experience really quickly. And then they can go to an adjoining county, and they can make more money,” she said. “And so we have to adjust our salaries there as well.”

The mayor also touched on vaccine distribution in Missouri. Gov. Mike Parson had chosen Walmart and Health Mart as partners in a federal program to increase vaccine allotments. But St. Louis has just three small Health Mart locations and no Walmarts within its borders. Krewson has called on the governor to distribute doses to Walgreens and CVS instead.

Asked whether the governor is punishing urban areas where he has low support, Krewson disagreed.

“That I don't think is the case,” she said. “But let me just say that when this whole state is getting 75,000 vaccines a week for 6.2 million people, we're getting such miniscule numbers. ... This is a problem all over the world. There just has to be more supply.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.