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Cape police say substation still necessary
An in-depth look at the Southeast Missouri Weed and Seed program designed to tackle violent and serious drug crime in five cities in the region.
By Mike Wells ~ Southeast Missourian
The door to the Cape Girardeau Police Department substation on Good Hope Street doesn't swing open as much as it used to when it opened four years ago. In fact, it's sometimes locked.
"When I first came here to work in this office, we had a volunteer to answer the phones," said Sgt. Rick Schmidt. "Now we have an answering machine instead of a volunteer."
It became difficult to keep volunteers motivated to stay when each day's workload was unpredictable, he said. Some days the phone rang off the hook and others it sat quiet. Without someone to regularly man the counter, the door ends up being locked for security.
But despite a lack of volunteers, police say the substation is still necessary and very much wanted by the neighborhood it services. Simply by its visibility in what at times has been a turbulent area of town, the substation sets the minds of residents and business operators at ease.
"It's good to know the police are only around the corner if we need them," said Pat Mungle, manager of the Alt Haus Wieder salvage shop on Morgan Oak. "We're glad to have them here."
The substation is the center of the police department's community-oriented policing efforts. It is where officers plan foot and bike patrols and special drug operations in the Southeast Missouri Weed and Seed neighborhood of Cape Girardeau. They also use it to mediate disputes between neighbors in a neutral place.
Mungle is one of the neighborhood business operators police officer Aaron Brown visits each month. Brown has been the substation's community service officer for about a year. He spends about 16 hours a week in the office, usually the first few hours of his shift, he said. That time is devoted to paperwork and appointments. When he's not at his desk, he's typically out on the streets or filling out incident reports, he said.
The office used to see more visitors when it first opened, but Brown might only see two or three people walk through the front door each day. "A lot of the time it's people I already know who are just stopping by to see how things are going or say hi," he said.
Though the door is sometimes locked, Brown said that between him, the nuisance abatement officers and the Weed and Seed seeding coordinator, there's usually someone there to handle walk-ins.
'A tremendous asset'
The busiest time for the substation is the third Tuesday evening of every month, when the neighborhood watch group meets. Typically about 20 residents attend.
Watch member Albert Bell is a big believer in the station's mission.
"It has been a tremendous asset to this part of town," he said. "Their presence is a vital part of continuing to curb the violence and drug problems here.
The station opened in March 1999, a tense time in Cape Girardeau, when the department's dealings with southside neighborhoods were criticized by black residents. Riots, heavy drug dealing and violence against officers often created a hostile environment, Schmidt said.
In some ways, the substation has been part of the success of the Weed and Seed effort, he said. Arrest sweeps have cleaned many dealers from the streets, and no more officers have been attacked. Streets where drivers couldn't stop at a corner without someone trotting up to the car to sell crack are now less appealing to dealers thanks to increased lighting and police patrols.
"In 1999, when a car would stop at Morgan Oak and Ellis, it would be a foot race between the dealers to see who could sell the dope first," Schmidt said. "That has changed. Aggressive enforcement -- daily -- solves the problem."
Schmidt was the community service officer at the substation from August 1999 to 2001. He still calls the southeast city streets "my neighborhood" and spends a great deal of time in special operations and community relations duty. Today, he sees less of a sentiment expressed by some residents that police opened the station to keep an intimidating eye on the black population.
"I haven't heard that for a long time," he said. "I think that's because we've been here. It took a long time for us to get that through to people."
But all that good work could be for naught if Southeast Missouri Weed and Seed can't keep its official site designation from the U.S. Department of Justice this year. Ironically, it is the region's falling crime rates that might eliminate the crime-fighting program locally. The substation's utilities and $350-a-month rent are paid with Weed and Seed grant money.
"Without Weed and Seed? No, it would close," Schmidt said of the station. "And it would just annihilate our overtime budget for the city. We would have to curtail special operations a lot."
Originally, the office space was provided to the department rent free. But after a water heater pipe burst and an ensuing flood damaged most of the interior, the department started paying rent in October 2001 to help the building owner with repair costs.
But Schmidt said the end of federal funding is something people should have been planning for all along.
"Federal money will not last forever," he said. "It was meant to be seed money for the initiative in this community. We need to come up with a plan B and a plan C just in case this happens to not come through."
If the station were to close, Bell, the neighborhood watch member, fears crime and violence would return to the streets.
"Without it on this side of town, it would be a great loss," he said. "I don't know where we'd be without it."
335-6611, extension 160