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Aldermen give initial support to adding back three police districts

CITY HALL – Members of the Board of Aldermen said on Friday that they were taking a stand on what they claimed was the slow response of police to reports of crime.

In an initial vote, the board approved a bill that would expand the number of police districts to nine from six. Twenty-First Ward Alderman John Collins-Muhammad, the bill’s sponsor, was preparing to ask for a final vote to pass the bill when he pulled it from consideration for the time being.

Some aldermen favored that delay, so that police and aldermen could discuss what’s needed during the end-of-year break. The next meeting will be Jan. 10.

Muhammad has said the districting change back to the way it was several years ago would bring police closer to the people and improve response time. His bill calls for the same boundaries as before. But he said those boundaries could be changed after discussion with police.

Before the number of districts was reduced, police response time and presence was better, he said.

“There was less crime in what today is high-crime neighborhoods,” Muhammad said.

In a meeting of the Board of Aldermen’s Public Safety Committee in October, Police Commissioner John Hayden asked for a delay so he could finish the adoption of a new record-keeping system. He said that would take about six months and take up the time of people who otherwise would develop data needed to make the right changes.

Hayden agreed at the time that the way the districts are divided now isn’t the best way to do it.

Muhammad answered in the same meeting that the bill would give police 180 days to put the system into place.

After that committee meeting, Muhammad put the bill on hold. In taking it off hold and asking for initial passage on Friday, he said Hayden hadn’t done anything.

“There has been no data. There has been no improvement,” Muhammad said.

The rationale for changing the boundaries before was the number of calls for service rather than actual crime, Muhammad said.

Sixteenth Ward Alderman Tom Oldenburg said he agreed with what Muhammad was saying but wanted to make sure that police leadership embraced this and that they weren’t set up to fail when they redistricted.

“The response time and the crime in our ward has gone up,” 23rd Ward Alderman Joseph Vaccaro said. People don’t see a police car in the ward, he said.

Twenty-Fifth Ward Alderman Shane Cohn said there had been 14 homicides in his ward so far this year.

“This is absolutely unacceptable. It’s not OK,” he said. “And while I don’t necessarily agree that we should go back to nine districts, there’s been absolutely no conversation on this.”

Muhammad said the police chief and Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards had had every opportunity to address this, but hadn’t.

In a statement issued after the meeting, Mayor Lyda Krewson encouraged patience.

“I understand the need for more police officers in more City neighborhoods, especially where there is far too much violent crime happening,” Krewson said.

Krewson said that the bill’s requirement of nine separate police headquarters would be very expensive, when the city should spend its money on police officers instead of buildings.  

“The problem remains that the City does not have enough police officers, and the officers we do have deserve more pay,” Krewson said.  “As I’ve stated before, recruiting for the Police Department also continues to be a major challenge due to pay, residency requirements and challenged community and police relations.”

But Muhammad said police would work out of the three stations they had now, for the North Patrol, Central Patrol and South Patrol. Instead of housing two districts, each station would house three districts.

Krewson also said she looked forward to continuing the conversation with the Board of Aldermen.

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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