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'A Case Of Whack-A-Mole': Alderman Talks Crime, Resident Concerns In Downtown St. Louis

Jack Coatar was worried about an exodus of residents and businesses from downtown St. Louis even before the area began seeing civil unrest and a surge in crime this summer.

“Just with working from home [during COVID-19], it was already a concern,” the 7th Ward alderman told St. Louis on the Air.

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Jack Coatar
Seventh Ward Alderman Jack Coatar represents much of downtown St. Louis.

Now he’s hearing people express more and more concerns. In an area that used to bustle with concertgoers, diners and Cardinals fans on many nights, the pandemic-driven vacuum of activity has been filled with something else entirely.

“Instead you have groups driving muscle cars,” and many of those inside the flashy vehicles are armed, Coatar said.

On Tuesday’s show, Coatar joined host Sarah Fenske to discuss the surge in racing, gunfire and assault and to share his thoughts on what can be done to address the situation, which was recently covered in depth by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Kim Bell.

“I don’t want to sugarcoat it: It’s pretty bad,” Coatar said. “What residents and business owners have been experiencing downtown, especially in the overnight hours, has been something that I know I find very troubling, and I think other city officials do as well.”

He said that the issues started in early spring, and that at first the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department seemed to have the situation more under control.

“Before COVID and then before some of the major protests downtown and in the region [the police department] was trying to get a handle on the cruising and some of the gunfire,” Coatar said, “and then due to I guess the pandemic and other more pressing concerns, I think some of these issues took a back burner and recently are back in the forefront.”

The alderman said he continues to hear from people struggling to get a response from police when reporting problems.

“I hear from my colleagues, I hear from residents throughout the city who regularly call 911 and are placed on hold, or simply no one picks up,” he said. “And that’s something that’s baffling to me, and I don’t understand. And as the board [of aldermen] comes back into session really in a week or so, I think we’re going to have some of those questions for the public safety director and the police chief.”

During the course of the conversation, Coatar answered questions from callers and from listeners who emailed and tweeted into the show.

The broadcast included prerecorded comments from downtown resident Les Sterman, who moved from the suburbs about 15 years ago with his wife.

Sterman said that from his perspective, the issues making headlines right now are not all that new.

“Over the last several years we’ve seen a real deterioration in the quality of life downtown. Obviously some of the disruption and criminal behavior and violence has really picked up,” Sterman said. “I think it’s very much inaccurate to say that it’s only been in this pandemic that we’ve seen this explosion of this kind of activity downtown … it’s really been building for a long time. And that’s made it in some ways uncomfortable to be living downtown, and we’re not enjoying it as much as we were at one time.”

Coatar acknowledged that he agrees with some of Sterman’s comments and is hearing a lot of similar concerns.

“I think some of it comes down to enforceability and visibility by the police department, and that’s not something, unfortunately, as an alderman, that I necessarily control,” he said. “It’s something that downtown residents have been asking for, that I’ve been asking for, and I think in the last couple weekends we’ve seen that situation improve where we have had more specialized units and more police downtown.”

One strategy that officials have implemented in an effort to cut down on drag racing involves various street closures and barricades. Coatar noted that it seems to be making a real difference, but that the stream of cruising vehicles also has a way of redirecting itself.

“We’ve closed Leonor K Sullivan [and] added numerous barriers and barricades on the south leg of the Arch to try to stop some of the cruising and partying that we’ve seen on the south riverfront,” Coatar said. “In the short term what that did was sort of push some of these activities to the north riverfront, which would be Laclede’s Landing.

“Now we’ve added some barricades and things there and some additional security patrols — some funded by the Community Improvement District, some funded by the police department, of which the casino helps contribute to the overall public safety budget. And unfortunately what the police would tell you is we’re sometimes dealing with a case of whack-a-mole. We can move the cruisers — we’ve moved them off the riverfront, but now we’re having a ton of issues on 4th Street, on Broadway and on Washington Avenue.”

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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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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