The Merchant of Venice

The McKinley Bridge is broke — structurally and financially — and everyone wants it fixed. Trouble is, Mayor Tyrone Echols of Venice isn't about to give away the city's bridge. But he could be talked into trading it.

The power plant still cranks out 429 megawatts of electricity, and almost none of its employees is a Venice resident. Blacks occupy Venice proper; most whites have scattered. And no one lives on Kerr Island.

All that remains today of Kerr Island is the Robin's Nest.

It's a small tavern at the end of a short dirt road called Slough Road, just south of the bridge and a stone's throw inside the levee. A small shack of a house, unoccupied, sits next to the tavern, and the area is surrounded by trees, shrubs and greenery. James "Ed" Newsome spent some of his early childhood years at Kerr Island. Now the Venice police chief, Newsome slows his police car down near the Robin's Nest and makes a U-turn. "I lived right over there," he says, pointing toward a clump of trees. "My fourth-grade teacher lived right across the street. There were houses all around here." He drives back out and up the incline, onto Route 3. "Used to walk up and catch the bus right here," he says. "There used to be a service station here. There were a lot of white taverns here, a drugstore, a post office. It's all gone."

Venice Mayor Tyrone Echols looks out at the railroad yards. Not only were the railroads a big part of the city's history, they built the McKinley Bridge.
Jennifer Silverberg
Venice Mayor Tyrone Echols looks out at the railroad yards. Not only were the railroads a big part of the city's history, they built the McKinley Bridge.

At 54, Newsome oversees an impoverished police department in a town that he has watched grow blacker and poorer in his lifetime. For 23 years, he worked for Madison County — as a detective and then as the county-jail superintendent — before retiring and taking over as Venice police chief in April 1996. He says he liked the idea of returning to his hometown as police chief.

But it wasn't the salary that attracted him: Newsome makes less than $10 an hour as police chief. He has five full-time police officers: a sergeant (also a detective, who earns $8.17 an hour), and a juvenile officer, a DARE officer and two other patrolmen (all at $7.33 an hour). He also has three part-time police officers and three dispatchers (at $5.75 an hour). Until recently, Newsome adds quickly, he had four dispatchers, but one left when the neighboring city of Madison hired her as a dispatcher for more than Newsome's salary.

As for deploying the officers, Newsome says, he tries to make sure at least two officers work each shift. On Tuesday and Thursday nights, when the Cut Rate Tavern on Baucum Avenue is hopping because of its two-for-one drink specials, Newsome schedules three patrolmen. Today, there is a problem: The officer who was scheduled to work called in sick, and Newsome finds himself the only patrolman on duty in Venice.

He says he could use at least three more full-time officers. A big obstacle is the pay. "Most of the officers we hire, as soon as they get some experience here, they're gone," he says. He's glad that one of his officers does have experience but laments that the guy can only work the midnight shift because he has a second job as the police chief of Alorton, a few miles away.

Crime in Venice boils down to crack cocaine. The city had only one homicide in each of the last two years. But the crack business hasn't slackened at all, says Newsome. Buyers from neighboring towns and from St. Louis drive in and buy the drug on a handful of street corners. Prostitution is minimal and mostly related to the crack business. The cops handle a substantial number of domestic-violence calls. "The husband and wife will be fighting, and one or both will be on crack," Newsome says.

As he cruises around town, he points to a small auto-mechanic setup, with a couple of abandoned cars outside. "They say that guy over there is the cheapest auto mechanic in town because he takes a little bit of crack for pay," Newsome says with a smile. "We're trying to work on him. He's a good mechanic, but he's a crackhead."

A few minutes later, he points to a slim young woman walking down the street in tight leopard-print pants and high heels. "That girl there, she used to be a secretary at one of our schools, and now she's addicted to crack cocaine."

Newsome can't afford a sustained attack on the drug problem. His department has neither the money nor the officers to participate in the regional Metropolitan Enforcement Group of Southern Illinois (MEGSI), essentially an undercover narc operation jointly funded by member police departments. MEGSI conducts drug crackdowns with undercover agents in cities that participate. "They assess $1 per resident, and we cannot afford $3,600 to participate," says Newsome. Nor can he afford the other option, which is to donate the services of one of his own officers.

He slows his car at the corner of Douglas and Baucum streets, where three young black men in baseball caps are standing on the sidewalk, leaning against an old blue Chevy. They keep a wary eye on the patrol car as it approaches. "They're probably waiting to deal some," says Newsome. He makes a U-turn and pulls up at the corner, parking about 15 feet from the men. "They'll scatter in a few minutes," he says. Soon enough, the men start ambling away, down the street and around the corner.

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