Mississippi County town grapples with drug problem

Monday, February 16, 2004

CHARLESTON, Mo. -- With just 4,700 residents, Charleston grappled with an undercurrent of drug activity that police chief Paul Johnson deemed intolerable.

Since May 2002, Johnson pledged a crackdown and hasn't disappointed. A dragnet last summer produced 103 arrests, and an additional 45 came last week.

Almost all the latest arrests were from the black population that makes up nearly half this town in Mississippi County, among Missouri's poorest.

"It's like a ghost town," Doris Williams, who had a sister, two nephews and two cousins nabbed in last Monday's raids, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Charleston harbored a drug problem for years, fed by users and low-level dealers slinging $20 worth of crack and players selling an eighth- to a quarter-ounce of the drug, officials say.

"The only real business we have here is drugs," said Fred Jennings, a self-employed construction worker who is also the local NAACP chapter's vice president. Two of his jobless sons, ages 20 and 21, were among those arrested last week.

Johnson finds himself caught in the middle, bent on cleaning up the town where the residents generally believe the underlying problem is an acute lack of opportunity for young locals.

Shortly after becoming the city's director of public safety -- head of a 15-officer department that makes arrests and fights fires -- Johnson noticed drug dealers around the basketball courts where he played as a child.

He vowed to clean up the streets and launched "Operation No Tolerance," a crusade that, among other things, has dropped drug-related car break-ins and burglaries from 10 or 15 a month to just one or two.

"I have some who say I'm targeting the black community. But I believe that in order to get rid of the problem, you have to get to the root of the problem," Johnson said. "Right now, the drug problem is -- was -- in the black community. Heavy."

'In denial'

Most of Charleston's blacks live in the West End, home to many of the town's 280 federally funded housing units. The North End, home to Victorian houses, is nearly entirely white and insulated from the drug dealings.

"Most of Charleston is in denial about what's going on," said Jennifer Raffety, the county's prosecutor.

The economy here has languished for years. Most people work on farms, and the second-leading employer is Gates Rubber Co., which has scaled back in recent years. A new maximum-security prison on the town's outskirts hasn't been the boon civic leaders had hoped.

It was always so grim. Decades ago, three cotton gins were running here, Brown Shoe Co. had a factory. Trains regularly rumbled through town.

But these days, the cotton gins are gone, and the shoe factory is silenced. The train tracks? Pulled out years ago.

Still, Charleston holds on. It comes alive in mid-April for the annual Dogwood-Azalea Festival, a tourist draw. Charleston High's Blue Jays have won nine state AAA basketball titles since 1975. Main Street's storefronts are filled with small businesses.

Nowadays, Arthur Cassell -- a letter carrier and president of the local NAACP chapter -- presses that "Charleston is one city, not a divided city."

Whatever the case, Tommy Baker said he applauds the crackdown.

"I think everybody in town is well-pleased to see some action."

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