Dodging open manholes where thieves had swiped cast-iron covers, Stephen Wigginton drives the crumbling streets of his hometown, East St. Louis, Illinois, pointing out new landmarks in America’s most violent city.
There’s the shopping mall where a police officer was shot in the face, a youth center that saw a triple homicide in September, and scattered about the city of 27,000 are brightly lit gas stations that serve as magnets for carjackers, hit-and-run robbers and killers.
“It’s the Wild West,” said Wigginton, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Illinois. With a murder rate 17 times the U.S. average, the nation’s highest according to the FBI, East St. Louis offers a glimpse at the future for budget-strapped cities like Detroit and Camden, New Jersey, that have made deep cuts to their police forces.
The Illinois city’s reputation for crime has scared away economic development from a place that sits just across the Mississippi River from its better-known urban namesake in Missouri and at the nexus of several interstate highways. It also has drawn the attention of federal law enforcement, with Attorney General Eric Holder vowing during a Nov. 30 visit to provide help.
“We’ve got to put the clamp on the crime,” said Mayor Alvin Parks, recalling a recent conversation with a business operator considering locating in East St. Louis. The chief obstacle: the city’s killings, which hit 25 in 2011, the most recent year for which FBI statistics are available, or 9.23 per 10,000 people compared with the national rate of 0.55.
The city reduced its police force by 33 percent from 2008 to 2011, the 12th-largest reduction among cities with more than 25,000 people, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation data. Among the 20 biggest U.S. police jurisdictions during that period, the number of officers fell 2.7 percent to 99,312.
The department in Camden shrank 33 percent in that time, the FBI says. Detroit has reduced the number of officers to about 2,500 from 4,000 in 2005 and is in the process of trimming another 100.
“Overall, crime continues to go down, but there are some places that were hard pressed to deal with crime before the recession, and now with budget cuts they are struggling to keep their heads above water,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum.
This week, Illinois created a regional police commission to set standards at departments in East St. Louis as well as neighboring Brooklyn, Alorton and Washington Park. Democratic Governor Pat Quinn said the panel “will bring the full force of law to these communities and better protect the residents of the region.”
Quinn established the panel to improve safety in communities that suffer from poverty, unemployment and crime. In East St. Louis, the 49 officers are outmanned, said Brendan Kelly, state’s attorney for St. Clair County.
“Given their crime rate, there should be at least 80,” he said. “It’s just an easy place for people looking for trouble.”
East St. Louis is the hometown of a number of celebrities, including Olympic sprinter Jackie Joyner-Kersee and hurdler Dawn Harper, as well as jazz legend Miles Davis, who spent his childhood here. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the U.S. Senate, was born there.
Crime in his hometown “breaks my heart,” Durbin said during a news conference last year when he was urging the city to close its night clubs earlier as a way to fight crime.
East St. Louis is a city of extremes. It showcases the “Gateway Geyser,” one of the world’s tallest fountains, shooting water 600 feet high, matching the height of the Gateway Arch across the Mississippi. It’s also a place of chronic economic misery -- 4 in 10 people live in poverty and the average household income is $21,000, compared with a 15 percent national poverty rate and average household income of $50,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“It was the back alley for all the stuff St. Louis didn’t want to deal with -- smoke stacks, heavy industry and all the people who worked there,” said Andrew Theising, a political-science professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and author of “Made in USA: East St. Louis, the Rise and Fall of an Industrial River Town.”
A one-time rail hub, the city was a center for meatpacking, coal, chemicals and aluminum before those jobs mostly vanished with the closing of factories beginning in the 1960s. The biggest employers today are the Casino Queen and the school district.
Parks, the mayor, said the city has had “an image problem” since the 19th century, when the city’s first elected leader, John Bowman, was murdered in his front yard.
East St. Louis’s economic base is now dominated by gambling and liquor. Forty-five percent of its general-fund revenue comes from the casino and another 15 percent from businesses, including nightclubs, that sell alcohol, Parks said.
The NBC comedy show “Saturday Night Live” in April broadcast a skit with a cast member playing Parks, referring to the city as a “hellhole.”
“East St. Louis has all sorts of people telling us how bad it is -- we know it,” said Sister Carol Lehmkuhl, who runs a shelter near the roofless stone ruins of an Episcopal church. “We haven’t seen a whole lot of people coming in and doing something about it.”
“People get tired of hearing it, and they leave,” Lehmkuhl said, referring to the two-thirds of the population that has departed since 1960, when residents numbered 81,000. Illinois created a financial authority in 1990 to oversee daily operations. It was unable to borrow money on its own.
“Who would buy the city’s bonds?” asked Brandon Drake, budget director for the East St. Louis Financial Advisory Authority. “Unless they get some economic development, the city will keep going down.”
In July, the city obtained a restraining order to block the state from taking over the school district. Such a takeover ignores the “tremendous” potential the city has, Parks said. The impediment, he said, is the perception of crime.
East St. Louis remains plagued by “vendettas and beefs,” Parks said, describing the reasoning of criminals.
“If I think your family is in a house and it hurts you to get your family, I’m going to shoot up the house,” he said.
A week after Parks’s remarks, Kelly’s office charged an East St. Louis man with hijacking a United Parcel Service truck and shooting a 15-year-old girl.
“It’s difficult to see any kind of business development or any chance to get out of the cycle of poverty if you don’t have basic public safety,” Kelly said.
As Wigginton drove around his old neighborhood, he pointed out that Davis’s boyhood home had been stripped of aluminum siding and interior pipes.
“There are a lot of good citizens here who are trying their best under extremely difficult circumstances,” he said, pointing to tires that have been stuffed in some open manholes as a warning to drivers. “But because it’s not a major American city it goes unnoticed.”
Cities reducing the size of their police departments should learn from East St. Louis’s travails, John Firman, director of research at the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said, adding that they ought to consider the threshold below which officers can no longer do their jobs.
“These cuts could backfire,” Firman said.