Belleville Shows Signs of Drug Activity, Literally

Police post signs outside alleged "drug houses"

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    Bellvile News Democrat
    Drugs: right this way!

    Call it a sign of the times.

    The Southern Illinois Belleville Police Department is trying a new approach to the war on drugs: They're posting signs that deliberately point out residences where drugs have been sold.

    Signs placed outside houses and apartment buildings read in bold, red letters: "Warning! Drug House; Enter at your own risk." An arrow points to the building in question, and the address is attached at the bottom of the sign.

    Wait a minute! So what they're saying is, as long as we accept the risk, it's okay to go inside? We don't fully understand how this new tactic fights crime.

    Mayor Mark Eckert told Belleville News Democrat that the signs are meant to send a message to all drug dealers, not just the targeted house: "We've got our eyes fixed on you. If the rules are being broken, if there's inappropriate behavior, illegal activity ... we're not happy with that, and we don't tolerate that in this city. It's not saying you're guilty, it's saying there's good reason to believe there's something going on there. If something's not right, you need to make it right."

    Along with the posted signs, the police department will notify neighbors and property owners about the drug activity.

    Suspected drug activity, that is.

    "We're not going to base our putting the signs up on what the courts are doing," said Belleville Police Capt. Don Sax.

    Capt. Sax said police might put up signs, which they began using Wednesday, before any charges have officially been pressed.

    That's exactly what happened to Thomas Cureton. Cureton, 29,was convicted of drug possession with intent to distribute in 2006, but that was long before he ever moved into his current H Street apartment. He's never been charged with selling drugs at his new residence, but a "drug house" sign was placed outside his home.

    "I wasn't convicted of anything," he said. "They're ridiculing me and slandering me before I'm convicted or charged with anything."

    Fortunately (or not) for Cureton, the sign was only outside his apartment building for barely 2 days. That's because the police only have two signs, so if they use them at a given location, it will only be for one day during daylight hours.

    Still, the "drug house" signs look eerily similar to "garage sale" or "yard sale" signs we often see posted around the neighborhood. Don't these "drug house" signs simply advertise to would-be criminals where drugs are being sold?

    Capt. Sax argued that those buying the drugs probably already knew to get them there in the first place.

    "Probably"? So, those buyers that didn't know about the location are now better informed? Thanks to the police.

    Town residents' reactions to the signs have been mixed.

    "I think it's a good thing," said Michael Hassard Sr. "It can't hurt."

    But Heath Wentz Sr., 32, thinks the signs certainly can hurt, specifically property values.

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

    Don Schaefer, former president of the Metro East Landlord's Association, said he would want to be notified privately of a drug arrest at one of his properties, not announce it to the public at large. After all, the signs leave a lasting, unfavorable impression.

    "The only way [the campaign] is going to help is if it gets rid of drugs," said Schaefer. "Signs don't get rid of the drugs. Police get rid of the drugs."

    Matt Bartosik is a Chicago native and a social media sovereign.