The case of the missing power saw in Dogtown won't go down in the annals of police work. But, on Sunday, it was symbolic of the community policing program that President Bill Clinton is protecting with his veto pen.
With U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and a gaggle of cameras in tow, police officer Bill Vize recounted how he had solved the saw case. He said community policing put him on the street where he got to know people, and that's how he heard about the crime.
Because he had earned the trust of residents, he picked up "a little information here and a little there" and was able to find the saw and return it to its owner.
There wasn't enough evidence for a prosecution, but Vize is keeping his eye on the suspect, who he thinks is responsible for other neighborhood thefts.
Reno and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-St. Louis County, agreed that the case was an example of one of the small but important ways in which Clinton's program for putting 100,000 police on the streets reassures a community. Without this basic police work, "the whole standard of society breaks down," said Reno.
Reno and Gephardt spent the day in St. Louis hammering home the veto threat that Clinton delivered Saturday in his weekly radio address. The president said he would veto any attempt by the Republican Congress to change his police program.
The police provision was part of the crime law passed last summer. That law is now being rewritten by Congress. The Republican proposal in the House would fold the $8 billion for police into $10 billion in block grants to the states.
On the stroll along the Dogtown beat, Vize introduced Reno and Gephardt to Maureen Brady, 58, who has lived in a corner house on Wise Avenue for her entire life.
In the years that Vize drove the beat in his patrol car, he had never met Brady. Now they are friends, and she is a good source of information.
"I think she must have sources in the CIA," joked Vize. Brady reciprocated, saying Vize's presence makes her feel safer.
Vize's salary isn't actually paid for by the new Clinton program. The money comes from a 1993 precursor. But lined up at attention at the corner of Tamm and Wise were 12 of the 23 new St. Louis police officers whom the Clinton provision is helping to fund. The officers stood in the frigid weather in front of the storefront office that was set up by a neighborhood association. Vize works out of the office.
After the tour of Dogtown, Gephardt and Reno went to the Crestwood City Hall, where they spoke to about a dozen area police chiefs who voiced support for Clinton's program. The chiefs agreed that it was better for the federal money to go directly to the police departments than through state and city governments in the Republican block grant approach.
Gephardt recalled that anti-crime block grants during the Nixon era – the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration money - had sometimes been abused by cities which bought expensive equipment, including a tank.
St. Louis Police Chief Clarence Harmon agreed, recalling that St. Louis had spent money on alley lights and a promenade by the riverfront.
During an interview with members of the Post-Dispatch editorial board earlier in the day, Reno defended grants to small, safe suburban towns like Glendale, which received a grant for an officer last week. Small town police chiefs have felt bypassed by federal anti-crime efforts for years, Reno said, and suburban residents are worried about the "spillover of crime" from the cities.
Reno reiterated the administration's opposition to other elements of the Republican anti-crime bills - the provision to allow more illegally seized evidence into trials, the cut in crime prevention programs and the ban on amenities in prisons.
She accused the Republicans of taking a "doctrinaire" approach to crime. "I don't like prisons that are country clubs either," she said. "But I've never met a prison that was a country club."
Few criminal prosecutions fail because of exclusionary rules barring some illegally seized evidence, Reno said. She said Clinton "feels strongly about the prevention programs," but added that the president isn't ready to use the veto to protect the prevention programs when compromise is still possible.
Gephardt predicted that Congress will cut most of the prevention money but confidently predicted that Clinton would win on police.
"We're going to go broke putting more people behind bars," he said. "You've got to do it, but it's insane as a long-term solution."
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