North Side Pitch

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

Jul 31, 2002 at 4:00 am
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.

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.

But she's also listening to a North Side mother who says she sleeps in a bathtub with her children so they won't get hit by a stray bullet from a drive-by. Such actions win her hard-to-get goodwill among neighborhood activists such as Mary Taylor and old political bulls like Bosley Sr.

In this culturally conservative town with deep Catholic traditions, she's also opened up investigations of priests accused of sexual abuse, although she also gets dinged for dragging her feet on the issue. And shortly after launching a probe into allegations of North Side vote fraud, she called a press conference to knock down rampant rumors that the investigation centered on Freeman Bosley Jr., the city's first African-American mayor and son of the 3rd Ward alderman. Most South Side pols would have let the rumors run on unchecked, leaving Bosley to twist in the wind -- just because that's how racial politics are played here.

Playing it different wins her unqualified praise from both Bosleys -- cause enough for teeth to grate on the South Side.

"She's the best one we've ever had," Bosley Sr. said at the neighborhood meeting, serving up his predictable mix of colorful overstatement. "She's out here because she has heard the problems of the people who live here.... I have never seen the other ones [Joyce's predecessors] get out of the ivory tower."

In an earlier conversation with the Speedloader, he said: "She's seeing firsthand why people don't believe in the justice system and why people are frustrated and disgusted with the system. She's come out of her office and walked the streets so she can see it for herself and understand why this cry is coming so strongly from the community that things are not getting done."

This is what Bosley's son says: "She really stepped into the breach when she called that press conference and said I wasn't involved. That's something nobody white in this city has ever done.... As opposed to her siding with the white people, she stepped up and called it like it was."

But the Boz also notes that the Shark's North Side shuttles buy her some political insurance for the re-election battle to come. She won her first race by only a couple thousand votes and faced opposition from two African-American former assistant circuit attorneys, Jerryl Christmas and Rufus Tate.

"She hears footsteps, but it's a good political move for her to do this, coming up to the North Side," says the Boz, holding court at Big Jake's, his barbecue restaurant on Delmar Boulevard, and noting that St. Louis is 53 percent African-American. "It's not going to get any whiter -- it's going to get blacker.... Part of the potential of someone like her is the potential of expanding beyond her established base. If she can cultivate a little support in the central corridor and the North Side, you'd see a much more emboldened circuit attorney."

Political players say the Shark is swimming a very thin line: She needs to cultivate support on the North Side and take care not to be tagged as a tool of Slay and the South Siders, but she must not stray too far from her base and invite a challenge from her political backyard.

"The North Side is not monolithic," says one sharpie. "There are a bunch of people up there who want somebody to take care of business when it comes to crime. It isn't just about race.... If Jennifer just plays it straight -- 'My job is to be colorblind when it comes to justice; my job is to prosecute people who deserve prosecuting' -- she can sell herself."

The Shark recognizes the North Side liability of her South Side roots but rejects the notion that her visits are a political ploy.

"I faced some hurdles when I got elected, since I was raised and have spent most of my life in South St. Louis," she says. "People [on the North Side] viewed me with some suspicion. Getting to see me, me getting to see them -- it's important. They're initially surprised to see me, but then they're glad to see me."

She paints herself in even tones. She says her travels to crime-dogged areas of the North Side -- and not every street is in the crosshairs -- are just as important as her visits to other chaos-plagued neighborhoods.

"I'm the circuit attorney for all of St. Louis," she says. "The crime issue is like the Pacific Ocean -- I have no illusion that I'm going to eradicate it. But if I can alleviate it in some places where people are raising their children, that's important."

Lizz Brown -- lawyer, WGNU-AM talk-show host and frequent critic of Joyce and all things South Side -- sees the Shark's North Side trips as so much window dressing.

"The more accurate assessment of Jennifer Joyce's connection with and commitment to the community would be the people of African descent hired by her," Brown says. "Coming into the black community and saying 'I'm going to crack down on crime' plays well -- on the South Side."

Brown accuses the Shark of having fewer African-Americans working for her than Hayes did -- an accusation the Shark forcefully counters. Since taking office, the Shark says, she's more than doubled the total number of African-Americans working in her 55-attorney office, from four to nine -- still a paltry 16 percent in a city that has a majority black population.

Two senior African-American prosecutors, Trent Mitchell and Paula Bryant, hold top management slots -- Mitchell runs a section that handles all drug cases; Bryant heads a five-attorney trial team and is in charge of recruiting minority attorneys. Bryant's recruiting duties serve as a reminder that the Shark has stiff competition for minority attorneys from law firms that can offer $90,000 starting salaries when she can offer just a little better than a third of that.

The Shark has a total of 130 people working for her, including fifteen African-American investigators on a roster of 33. Seven of those African-American investigators were hired by her. Of the twelve victim-services counselors in her office, seven are African-American, and five of them were hired by her.

But numbers only tell part of the Shark's tentative journey toward political independence. What's more important is her exposure to people such as Mary Taylor, whose house has been firebombed and shot up because of her unyielding stance against gangbangers and drug dealers.

"You have to let 'em know: 'I'm big and bold and I'm not going away,'" Taylor says. "I've seen a lot of 'em go down in the grave and to the penitentiary, and I'm still here."

Now that's a crime-fighter. The Shark should take note.