Photo by Fred Pollard
Alton Mayor Brant Walker speaks during the city’s town hall meeting at St. Paul’s Church Wednesday. Walker and Alton Police Chief Jake Simmons discussed procedures and plans for improved public relations with the crowd during the meeting.
ALTON – Alton Mayor Brant Walker initiated a town hall meeting in the city’s 4th Ward this week, kicking off what he hopes will be an ongoing opportunity for growth and interaction.
“This is a great opportunity for residents to meet with, and get to know, their city officials,” Walker said.
During the 90-minute session at St. Paul’s Church on Gold Street, department heads and city representatives fielded questions from neighborhood attendees. Much of the meeting focused on crime within the 4th Ward, especially in the Mexico area, which has developed a reputation of violence and drug activity over the years.
Crime in the Mexico neighborhood
Richard Holman Sr., who says he has lived in the Mexico area for 12 years, says while he was excited when the Hellrung family rededicated Hellrung Park three years ago, the park has since become a problem, with loitering and drug activity commonplace.
“I was in this neighborhood, on Highland and Brown Streets,” Walker responded. “I took a building that was overrun with drug dealers and I fought the drug dealers daily. I ran a business on that corner and we didn’t quit.
“Our arrests are up 6 percent, and crime is down 3 percent. That comes when residents are no longer afraid of the bad guys and we work together to fix the neighborhood.”
Alton Police Chief Jake Simmons said with the change in weather and more traffic in the park, police patrols in Hellrung Park will be increased. Currently, the park has a dusk-until-dawn curfew.
One business owner inquired about the surveillance cameras installed throughout the area, including Hellrung Park and Central Package Liquor.
Simmons acknowledged the surveillance cameras set up throughout the area, including Hellrung Park, were “a big help” to the department, but grant money to keep those cameras operating was depleted, and the cameras have since fallen into disrepair and are not able to be utilized.
He said the city plans to look into new grants to help pay for surveillance.
Police interaction with the Mexico neighborhood
Joshua Young of Alton says one barrier the neighborhood faces is an administration that “picks and chooses” with whom it works.
“I think there is an issue of rapport between the police department and the people,” Young said. “We need to talk about policy and procedure. Our barrier is that we cannot give our administrative bodies to work across the board. We don’t want to have to become part of an ‘in crowd’ to get justice for the people.”
Simmons disagreed with Young, saying the department does work with organizations and the community in an attempt to address social issues.
“If we were the ‘in’ crowd and not concerned, we would not be here tonight,” Walker added. “We are here to help, and we are here to listen.”
Holliday also reiterated the town hall meeting was Walker’s idea.
Some people who spoke during the meeting expressed concerns regarding the way officers treat people who make the initial call about illegal activity.
Harrison Henderson says he has lived in the Mexico area for 24 years.
“Your officers are very disrespectful,” Henderson said. “Some officers are nice guys, but others are not very nice.”
Other attendees of the meeting said they have seen improvement in the interaction between the police and the public in their neighborhoods.
Simmons says in the early 90s, the city was battling serious gang activity, and he credits both the police department and the community with helping to curb the problem.
“No snitching is still a huge barrier,” he said. “In my opinion, that is in place because a lot of police officers 20 years ago did not provide courtesy and were not professional. My job is getting the officers out of their cars and interacting with the kids. We need to develop positive contacts with the kids that carry over into adulthood so we can get rid of this ‘no snitch’ barrier.”
Simmons said his department relies on tips from citizens to help curb crime, and those tips can be anonymous.
“I have seen in this community a lack of willingness to pursue things through the complaint system,” meeting moderator Stanton Holliday said. “You may think that if you turn in a complaint it will be thrown in the trash, but (that’s not true).”
African American police officers on the force
Holliday also expressed what he said was the desire of many in the community to see more African American police officers. Currently, there are two black police officers on the force. Holliday says in 1972, the city hired nine black officers shortly after racially motivated rioting broke out in Alton.
Simmons said a number of those officers who served moved on to positions in the FBI, DEA and other federal agencies after leaving the Alton Police Department, and as they have moved on, there has been a lack of qualified African American applicants to rise up and take their place.
“We have gone to job fairs, and we advertise,” Simmons said. “(Having more African American officers) is a concern of mine, and we are doing what we can.”
Director of Civil Service Anita McAfoos said the city consistently reaches out to African American churches and organizations, both directly and through the media, in an attempt to spread the word among the community of job openings in the department.
During the last promotional testing held by the city, eight of the 72 applicants were African American.
Simmons also said cutbacks, which have occurred in police departments across the country, are a factor. Referencing crime problems and areas where speeding is an issue, he says spreading the force too thin is a concern.
“We have to do more with less,” he said. “Ten years ago, we had 71 officers. Today, we have 57, and two are about to retire. This is a big city, and we can’t be everywhere. We are busy all of the time. We are going to solve these problems, but it will take a little patience.”
Other items discussed during the meeting included increased minority hiring for city jobs, summer hiring for area youth, options for felons who have served their sentence and are looking for work in the local area, and the police department’s alleged refusal to supply complaint forms and incoming call recordings upon demand. Simmons said it is inappropriate for his officers not to supply forms or information, that he is not aware of a problem in that area, and said he wants to know if that situation occurs so it can be addressed.
Following the 90-minute meeting, city leaders including Walker and Simmons spent time meeting the public and answering questions one on one.
Walker says he feels the city is on the right track, and with concentrated efforts to work together with the community (such as the city’s amnesty program), its police force will continue to make progress.
“These police officers do have your back,” he said. “We are a safe city, and getting safer due directly to this police department.”
The city plans to hold town hall meetings in each ward on a semi-annual basis to increase interaction and communication between city leaders and residents.