Courts & Crime

New police tactic: Signs that point to where drugs are sold

BELLEVILLE, Ill. — The Belleville Police Department has a new tactic in fighting the drug trade in the city — signs pointing out to the public houses and apartments where police say drugs are sold.

A sign placed outside an apartment building Wednesday at 322 W. H St. said in bold, red letters: "Warning! Drug House; Enter at your own risk." An arrow on the sign points to the building, and the address is attached to the bottom of the sign.

Police made an arrest for drug sales there on Jan. 7. Details of the arrest were not available after business hours Wednesday. The owner of the apartment building couldn't be reached late Wednesday.

The goal of the signs, Belleville Police Capt. Don Sax said, is community awareness -- letting the neighborhood know the police are paying attention to their complaints and acting on the problem.

"Drugs beget violence," Sax said. "It's just another tool in that fight to try to fight off the drug trade."

Michael Hassard Sr. lives near the group of apartment buildings that includes the one marked with the sign. He said he has seen countless cars come and go quickly at night.

"I think it's a good thing," he said about the sign. "It can't hurt."

A lifelong resident of the neighborhood, 32-year-old Heath Wentz Sr., said the area has seen good and bad times, and that in the past four years, it's taken a turn for the worse because of the apartments. He said he's seen it all there -- ambulances responding to overdoses, fights, multiple drug deals happening each night, and some gun violence. Last summer, he found a bag of hypodermic needles thrown into his flower bed.

He's been reporting problems for years, but he said the drug trade persists there.

But Wentz is skeptical about whether the sign will help stop drug deals. He said people buying drugs come for them mostly after the sun goes down, and after police take the sign down.

"It's not going to discourage some people," he said. "It just makes the neighborhood look bad."

Police also will begin sending notifications about drug busts to the managers and owners of the property where police say drugs are sold, and to the neighbors. The department also has set up a tip line where citizens can provide information about the houses or apartments where the drug signs have been posted, or those that police haven't picked up on. That number is 234-1218, Ext. 686, and callers can remain anonymous.

The letters police will mail to property owners and neighbors include tips of what to watch out for, such as numerous short visits to the location, people who appear to be acting as lookouts, unusual security measures, and cars driving by slowly.

The police department used the sign for the first time Wednesday and won't necessarily use them for every residential drug bust.

"If we feel like it's not going to be of value at a particular location, it may not go there," Sax said.

The police have only two signs, and when they use them at a location, it'll likely only be for a day, and only during daytime hours. However, the sign will be up again on West H Street today because police used it for only part of Wednesday. The signs are heavily weighted, which police expect will deter people from stealing them.

When asked whether he thinks the signs will advertise where people can buy drugs, Sax said that those buying the drugs probably already knew to get them there in the first place.

Ward 7 Alderman Jack LeChien likes the new strategy.

"It's a way of putting pressure on the landlords to run a tighter ship," he said.

In response to anyone who might complain about the signs' role in decreasing property values or in difficulty selling homes, LeChien said, "In the long term, what's going to help sell their house is getting drug dealers out of their neighborhood."

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