North Side Pitch

Jennifer Joyce crosses the racial divide to walk the streets and talk about crime

The South Side Shark hit the door late -- as expected -- while a tough-as-nails senior, Mary Taylor, ramrodded a Thursday-night meeting of the 3rd Ward Neighborhood Council she rules as president, making cops, judges and a mayoral aide jump like trained seals through hoops of her stern making.

This was a follow-up meeting, a progress report from some of the main players of the city's criminal-justice system on what they were doing to clean up war-zone blocks of drug dealing and thug life in Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr.'s fiefdom.

About 40 people packed the conference room of the council's headquarters on West Florissant Avenue, facing Taylor's assembled lineup of 5th District cops, circuit judges and the Shark herself, Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, a South Sider doing her job but also scoring some serious political points on the other side of the St. Louis racial divide.

Jennifer Joyce hugs Mary Taylor, 3rd Ward Neighborhood Council president.
Jennifer Silverberg
Jennifer Joyce hugs Mary Taylor, 3rd Ward Neighborhood Council president.

Most were seniors.

All are fed up with the shootings, the open-air narcotics markets and petty thievery swirling around homes they've lived in for decades. All want an end to the Wild West atmosphere. All are looking for a hard sheriff to restore law and order on mean slices of streets such as Gano, Adelaide, De Soto and Peck.

But many have an innate distrust of the police, fed by decades of rough-handed cop treatment of African-Americans here, out in the county and elsewhere -- from getting pulled over for "driving while black" to the Jack in the Box shootings in Berkeley to the beating of Rodney King.

The Shark got a strong dose of that distrust when she handed out applications for a ten-week seminar, sponsored by her office, on how the criminal-justice system works. Her office runs the record of every applicant to make sure a felon doesn't get a "backstage pass" to learn the secrets of the trade and how to manipulate the system.

"You're asking me for all kinds of personal information I just don't want to give you -- my Social Security number -- and me, I've never done anything wrong in my life, not even a parking ticket," said one woman.

"The archbishop himself can give me information, and I'm gonna run his record," replied Joyce. "That information is kept in the strictest confidence by my office. It's not a public record, and when we're through with it, those records are destroyed. I give you my word on it."

"That's not good enough for me," the woman shot back.

Deep distrust of law enforcement isn't the only hurdle the Shark faces in her repeated forays to the North Side, where she has walked the streets to check out drug trafficking and gang activity and attended a score of meetings just like this one, all since taking office as a rookie elected official with a solid-gold South Side political pedigree thanks to her parents, the late Jack and Nellene Joyce, who both did tours on the Board of Aldermen, representing the 23rd Ward, Mayor Francis Slay's home turf.

In a city that has never truly reached racial equilibrium, there's a high wall of animosity and mistrust between the predominantly white South Side and the predominantly black North Side. Not a lot of love between north and south. Not a lot of hands reaching over that racial and political barrier -- which makes the Shark's North Side rambles notable in a way they wouldn't be in a city that has knocked out hunks from those old walls: Dallas, for example, or Atlanta, even Birmingham, Alabama.

Not that she's the first white prosecutor to visit the North Side. Her predecessor, Dee Joyce-Hayes, also made the rounds of neighborhood meetings during her first term, but in 1996, after she failed to prosecute the cop with a Hispanic surname who killed teenager Garland Carter, doors slammed shut. North Side churches refused to let her speak to their congregations; she was jeered during the annual Annie Malone parade.

Joyce-Hayes also won office against both black and white challengers without carrying the South Side. So maybe the Shark is trying to borrow the better pages of Joyce-Hayes' political playbook, hoping to make North Side inroads while keeping her fingers crossed that she never has to face the question of filing charges against a cop for taking the life of a black teen.

Maybe, she's just doing her damn job, going where the crime is -- be it on the North Side, the South Side or the central corridor. She says her office has targeted high-crime blocks in each of the city's 79 neighborhoods for special attention and speedy prosecution.

Either way, the Shark has a tough sell.

Seen as a child of the 23rd Ward and a member of Slay's South Side gang, the Shark displays a curious mix of servitude to and independence from the folks what brung her to the political dance. She's walking point on Frankie the Saint's attempt to pin the city's crime problem on circuit judges doling out lenient sentences to armed robbers, an exposed position that could win her the undying enmity of a politically active bench and reinforce the notion that she's a puppet of Slay and the South Side machine.

Next Page »