Partners in Crime: WIU reaches out to East St. Louis

WIU and the city of East St. Louis are partnering in an effort to cut down on crime in the city

In the shadow of the Gateway Arch, crime is never far away.

"In a typical 8-hour shift, you run - there's not a quiet day. Let's say that," Michael Floore, chief of the East St. Louis Police Department said.

It's an area known as one of the most dangerous places in the state of Illinois; an area that many only know from the stories of violence and drugs that plague the area.

But inside city limits, you'll find people who are working every day to create a better life for the city's 28,000 residents and surrounding communities. You'll also find that the Tri-States soon will be part of it all.

On a mission

East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks grew up in the area. When he took office in May 2007, the crime numbers were staggering.

According to Parks, there had been 15 homicides in the city from the start of 2007 to when he took office. The outlook for the rest of the year wasn't good.

"It was well on its way to between 35 and 40, which for a city of this size is exceptionally high," Parks said.

But with his administration came a mission to stop violent crimes. Parks outlined a four-part plan to make that happen: get the guns off the street, reduce domestic violence, prevent criminals from settling scores with each other, and go after the drugs.

"The people who are peddling the drugs are some of the most violent, I'll-do-anything types of people you could ever imagine," he said. "Go and get the drugs. Do whatever it takes to go into the drug houses and shut them down. Get to the corners, clean them up."

Parks put his faith in Floore, another product of the area who took over as police chief in 2012.

Floore said when he was younger, he remembered officers showing up at the houses of students who were truant from school. He said it was an example of the community knowing its officers and recognizing their authority, something he said the city has gotten away from.

"One of the things I'm trying to do slowly is for our officers to bring the trust - I want the citizens to trust us again," Floore said.

Maybe that's happening.

What was 15 homicides in the first five months of 2007 is now five in the same time span in 2014. But Parks is quick to point out that even one homicide is far too many.

The Tri-States connection

Even with that drop, the East St. Louis of today isn't the city that Parks and Floore used to know. The same goes for Tye Taylor, another local and a graduate of Western Illinois University.

Taylor serves as an economic development consultant to the mayor and city officials of East St. Louis. He's a man tasked with the job of bringing prosperity back to a once-prosperous town.

A recent study of East St. Louis-area crime by the U.S. Department of Justice showed an alarming statistic.

Surrounding communities had a police budget of $240,832 per violent crime. The Metro East Police District Commission, comprised of the Alorton, Brooklyn, East St. Louis, and Washington police forces, had an average police budget of only $3,642 per violent crime.

As Parks pointed out, the tax base for a bigger budget just isn't there.

That's where Taylor came in.

"All of a sudden it became very apparent that there was a major role that WIU's law enforcement administration department would be able to play," he said of his alma mater.

"No major investor, no major developer will go into an area and develop if they do not feel that their investment is well-protected."

WIU can help change that.

Taylor believed the school could help strengthen local police departments, making a safer city. As a result, businesses would once again be drawn to the area, creating more jobs and bringing in more residents. Those additions would build the tax base needed to help the police departments continue to fight crime.

Thus, a partnership was formed, all for a cause very close to those involved.

"This is home, and we do take this very seriously and very personally," Taylor said.

"I've got grandkids that go to school right here in East St. Louis, so do you think I want to let something happen to one of my grandkids? Or your kid or anybody's kid? So I go the extra mile for that," Floore added.

Changing a culture

Western Illinois University is a school looking to expand its reach in the state of Illinois and beyond.

"We thought it would be beneficial for us to open up an office down there," Dr. Gary Biller, vice president for student services at WIU said.

WIU plans to open an admissions office in East St. Louis towards the end of this summer or early fall. The new office will provide the foundation needed to form that partnership.

It will be made possible by the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board Executive Institute, which provides leadership training to law enforcement officers across the state. The agency also staffs an office on WIU's campus.

"In many instances, you see where universities study, write studies and reports and they hand them to you. But this is going to be a hands on partnership," Taylor said.

Susan Nichols is the director of the agency in Macomb. Her department soon will provide reinforcement to police officers in the East St. Louis area with training and support, much like what is currently offered in Macomb.

"The officers can also achieve academic credit for that - they can go for undergraduate academic credit, or they can also apply that towards a graduate degree," Nichols said.

The aforementioned crime study also showed more than half of the metro area's residents live below the poverty line, which may contribute to a violent crime rate about nine times higher than the rest of the state, and a homicide rate about 11 times higher.

But this partnership will help Michael Floore's officers continue to fight those excessive crime rates.

"Its one whole focus is to educate the area of East St. Louis," Nichols added.

Returning the favor

The partnership might also help to educate students.

WIU officials hope the partnership and new admissions office will lead to greater enrollment numbers in Macomb from the entire St. Louis metro area.

According to Dr. Biller, the school received only about 115 admission applications from the entire area for the upcoming school year.

"There are schools down there that we want to be in and talking to their students, to their parents, and to their high school counselors," he said.

Any noticeable change in crime and economic development won't become evident for months, or even years. But it appears the future of East St. Louis will be much different than its recent past, with help from WIU.

From the day he took office, Mayor Alvin Parks has been on a mission to stamp out violent crimes. Improved officer training and support might be his biggest asset yet in that fight.

"If you can go from excellent, to superb, to tremendous and in the top one percent of the country, why shouldn't we?" he said.