On Cherokee Street, St. Louis Police Try an Age-Old Experiment: Beat Cops

On duty on a cold night, officers Devin Guajardo (left) and Jazmon Garrett serve as the SLMPD's anchors on Cherokee Street.
On duty on a cold night, officers Devin Guajardo (left) and Jazmon Garrett serve as the SLMPD's anchors on Cherokee Street. DANNY WICENTOWSKI

Cherokee Street wakes up slowly.

It is a cold Friday morning in December, and the business district is basically deserted, its stasis disrupted only by the passing traffic and a bitter, whistling wind. Crunching their fingers inside thin gloves, two St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department officers walk west along the sidewalk.

The embroidery on the front of their uniform jackets says, incorrectly, "Downtown Bike Unit." Although Devin Guajardo and Jazmon Garrett also work assault investigations and pull overtime patrols all over the city, the two officers actually serve in a unit all their own. They belong to Cherokee Street.

Day to day, nine to five — or two to ten at night — they traverse a three-quarter-mile stretch populated with bars, restaurants, music venues, Mexican groceries, furniture stores, resale shops and antique emporiums. The pair represent a throwback to days of yore, back when the department had manpower to spare. They are "community policing" in action.

This stretch of Cherokee bustles with a potent mixture of family businesses, entrepreneurial energy and youth culture. At the same time, the area has seen more than its share of violent crime, so much so that, starting in 2015, the department plunged resources into Gravois Park and the surrounding area, with the intent to topple the crime rates that were leading the district.

Eventually, those resources would include two newbie officers, neither more than two years out of the academy, but who both showed a knack for a certain set of policing skills.

The taller of the two, Guajardo, has her eyes hidden behind slender black aviators. She clangs through the metal door to the Cherokee Market, in the midst of describing the duo's work on the assault team — "We're like part-time detectives," she says — when she's greeted by the man behind the register.

"I haven't seen you for a while," he says.

"We've been busy," says Garrett. She slides off her earmuffs. "They've got us doing so much."

Today, though, Guajardo and Garrett are back on the beat. They will return here several times over the next eight hours, not just to warm up, but to trade crucial gossip — about past crimes, new faces and potential signs of trouble. In the afternoon, Guajardo will post up near a rack of cheap snacks and stoically evaluate the crop of teenagers who start to flood the area when school lets out. One teen will take one look at the glowering cop and turn tail, bounding at a full sprint out of the shop.

Indeed, you work in one place long enough, and people will start to recognize you. Work as a cop in one place long enough, and people will start to depend on you, confide in you and maybe even befriend you. Others will try to avoid you, knowing they can't pull anything while you're around.

The radio on Guajardo's shoulder squawks. It's an incident on Ohio Avenue, just a few blocks away. "Male and female fighting ... male is making threats toward the female ... caller is also irate that police have not arrived yet."

Someone else is on their way to check out the altercation. On this morning, the officers have nowhere to be but where they are. Beyond this street, the regular patrol officers in District 3 bounce from crime to crime, taking incident reports and passing cases to detectives before driving by SUV to the next mugging, car theft, assault or domestic disturbance. The Cherokee beat officers stay put.

The dispatcher on Guajardo's radio interrupts with another loud alert — "Three 911 calls to the same address ... suspect known to carry a gun" — just as the two officers are saying goodbye to the shop owner and walking back into a blast of wind.

Guajardo and Garrett have a different job to do.

Jazmon Garrett works the beat. With many cases involving juveniles, shop owners become a critical source. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
Jazmon Garrett works the beat. With many cases involving juveniles, shop owners become a critical source.

When Shawn Dace took over as captain of District 3 in 2015, he took special note of the communities surrounding Cherokee Street. His reasons were not the ones that have made the district a destination for food lovers and other young creatives. Cherokee itself may be one of the city's biggest success stories, but get one block off the street and things sometimes feel downright dangerous.

"I have thirteen neighborhoods, and when I started, they told me that two neighborhoods, Gravois Park and Dutchtown, drive crime in District 3," he says. "So we focused a lot of attention there."

Judging by the available crime stats, the attention has paid off. Compared to 2016, total crime in Gravois Park was down thirteen percent in 2017, while the informal collection of "Cherokee neighborhoods" (Gravois Park, Marine Villa, Benton Park and Benton Park West) has seen an overall drop of around eight percent. During the same period, homicides citywide surged past 200 — largely thanks to a concentration of murders in a handful of northern neighborhoods — and so the trend in south city is a notable bright spot.

That boost of attention, though, has a real cost. Dace's back office in Central Patrol headquarters on Jefferson Avenue sits opposite a bulletin board listing patrol officers and their respective car numbers. At full strength, District 3 should field 104 officers across south city. Dace only has 92, and five of them, he says, are on extended sick leave. Four are detached to other units. Practically, that leaves the district 21 officers short.

"That was my biggest concern with putting Jazmon and Devin on the street; we've sacrificed a lot to have them down there," Dace admits. But, he adds, "we're going to continue to have them down there as long as we can sustain it."

Packing neighborhoods with patrol cars takes bodies, which the SLMPD simply doesn't have.

Presently, the department's 1,184 commissioned officers — more than 100 short of its optimal strength — are spread between patrol duties and support staff. In his own district, Dace estimates, only seven to ten officers on average are patrolling during any given shift. In more affluent corners of the city, community improvement districts and business associations have turned to private security companies, staffed by off-duty St. Louis cops, to increase patrols. Aside from Soulard and parts of South Grand, District 3's neighborhoods are largely without that luxury.

The staffing shortages are nothing new. Still, Dace remembers that it wasn't long after he took command of the district in 2015 that business owners on Cherokee Street began lobbying for foot patrol officers. They complained that the departure of regular patrols from the street had created a safe zone for crimes both petty and serious.

"The more I attended meetings, that would be the thing, every time," he says. "And I got to realize that a lot of the issues we were having down there were from some of the juveniles. My thought process was, although I am forfeiting two officers, the possibility that these officers could get to know who the juveniles were, the ones who were possibly creating issues, would outweigh us losing a two-man car. I started to think about who would be good for that area."

In the summer of 2016, Dace found himself passing through a crowd on Cherokee during the year's National Night Out celebration, a block party that brought residents into the street to eat, drink and let loose. The air thumped with music. He spotted two blue uniforms: Jazmon Garrett and Devin Guajardo.

"I saw them out dancing with some young kids. I thought, 'They got a good rapport with the community,'" he recalls. He'd found his beat cops for Cherokee.

Talking to kids is a big part of the officers' afternoon and evenings. Fewer after-school resources means more potential trouble on Cherokee Street. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
Talking to kids is a big part of the officers' afternoon and evenings. Fewer after-school resources means more potential trouble on Cherokee Street.

Guajardo and Garrett met on their first day of police academy in 2014, and they partnered intermittently on patrols until Dace assigned them to Cherokee in September 2016. At the time, the street was grappling with a spike in crime, including a string of robberies and a brazen daytime assault that put a shop owner in the hospital (he later died). Sixteen months later, the crime stats tell a different story, and to the officers, that change is apparent on the street.

"It's been quiet lately," says Guajardo as they survey the street that cold December morning.

"It has been," concurs Garrett. "Fingers crossed."

It turns out to be a very quiet day on Cherokee. No armed robberies, no muggings, no car chases. Not even a shoplifting call. Instead, there is the steady labor of basic policing: building contacts, following up on leads, noting the location of newly installed surveillance cameras that may have recorded an assault that took place last week, making endless small talk with the people who cross their path.

These aren't special skills. "That's not central to just being a Cherokee cop, that's any beat cop," explains Guajardo.

She and Garrett are carefully modest describing the difference between their roles and those of officers taking 911 calls in patrol cars. But there are some significant differences at play. In their twelve-block territory, from Nebraska Avenue to Lemp Avenue, they aren't responding to urgent demands for help. They are, instead, getting to know people. Getting them to open up. Getting them to talk about things they might have written off, and thereby solving the crimes that never got a 911 call to begin with.

It's just past noon, and Bridget Weible, the proprietor of Flowers to the People, is leaning on a vase near the register, recounting how she once alerted Guajardo to a woman in her shop acting strangely. That same woman later robbed an antique shop down the street, and Guajardo was able to help make the ID for an arrest.

"My intuition was correct about that, but I never, ever would have called 911. I don't want to make a big deal out of it," Weible says. She's reflecting one side of a longstanding philosophical split among local business owners. Some see 911 as the go-to answer for every suspected shoplifter. Others are hesitant to involve the authorities, motivated perhaps out of mercy or simply to avoid the hassle.

"There's plenty of people crying wolf on the street about every expired license plate," Weible says. "But instead of bringing in strangers, I know these officers, and we have a relationship. It just makes me so comfortable."

The exchange jostles something in Weible's memory, another instance where she didn't "want to make a big deal" by involving the cops. "My door got kicked in two days ago," she tells the officers. The thief had cleaned out her register. She'd also heard someone had similarly broken into Kevin's Pizza down the street. Garrett promises Weible she'll follow up with the burglary squad, and the officers continue their way east down the section of Cherokee known as Antique Row.

Both cops grew up in the region, Garrett across the river in East St. Louis and Guajardo in the Walnut Park neighborhood of north city. Both, too, took their time coming to the force. Garrett, 30, is the mother of one and had been a medical technician. She joined the force after tiring of her job at a plasma donation clinic. Guajardo, 26, had once studied to be a teacher.

Both are now filling multiple roles. "Teacher, cop, counselor, social worker," says Guajardo, repeating a common insight about the life of a 21st-century police officer.

"Sometimes the babysitter," Garrett cracks. "It's the nature of the job."

But being on the same street day after day gives them an advantage most St. Louis cops don't have.

"We have more time than a regular car would have," Garrett says. "We can sit down and talk for an hour if we wanted to. Someone patrolling the streets in a vehicle has so many calls pending that they just get the basic information, and they're gone. They don't have that luxury."

That extra time is also vital when it comes to dealing with the usual suspects behind property crimes along the street. Far from hardened adult criminals, the officers say, it's juveniles, some as young as grade-school kids, that are behind most of their workload on Cherokee.

And when dealing with youth, most of a cop's normal playbook gets thrown out the window. Kids can't be questioned like adults, and they can't be detained easily, let alone jailed for 24 hours. Most of the time, even juveniles caught red-handed are simply returned to their parents, reappearing back on the street soon after, returning to the area and hanging with the same bad crowd.

"Hey Keyon!" It's just after three in the afternoon when Guajardo spots a short, hoodie-wearing figure walking toward a juice and sandwich joint. Her tone is cheerful, but built on a bedrock of stern. "Out of school already?"

They follow Keyon into the store, where he's joined a table of sullen boys who seem none too pleased by the sudden company. The cops and kids banter, though, and Guajardo advises one, pointedly, to stay away from a certain group of friends.

Outside the shop minutes later, Guajardo explains that the kid was hanging with a group of troublemakers. She'd told him that even if he "didn't do anything," he would do better to avoid that sort of company. "He might take it or leave it," she says. "You got to get into their bubble. There's a basketball court at Cherokee and Nebraska that we frequent; we go up there and play basketball with them, play jump rope with them." They also show up to the kids' schools and make efforts to pair at-risk students with programs, especially when the parents are too busy for supervision.

"Try to get to know them," adds Garrett. "Get their names, make it seem that we're there for them and not trying to mess with them or make them think we're just looking for reasons to lock them up."

It's some of the hardest work on Cherokee, and for the beat officers, it's the most rewarding when it proves effective. All too frequently, though, Guajardo and Garrett find the window for intervention has already narrowed. The smartphone the Cherokee cops use almost like a radio dispatch — a phone that was donated by a Cherokee electronics store, Communications Depot — regularly buzzes with calls from their Cherokee contacts reporting new misbehavior, seeking help.

And as for the kids, do they reach out for help as well?

Garrett starts to say "no," but Guajardo interjects over her.

She says, "We're not there yet."

A beat patrol gives the officers freedom to investigate cases. "We actually have the time to get more deeply involved," Garrett notes. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
A beat patrol gives the officers freedom to investigate cases. "We actually have the time to get more deeply involved," Garrett notes.

Guajardo and Garrett may have landed on Cherokee Street with a unique assignment, but it's not like the department showered them with extra resources. Or basic ones, even. In addition to the donated cellphone, another Cherokee business, Spoked Bikes and Stuff, repaired two SLMPD bikes that had been issued in rough shape. The officers' space at Nebula was donated by the co-working concept's owner, Cherokee developer Jason Deem.

"For a long time," Deem says of the police department, "I thought that maybe they were using lack of resources as an excuse to not provide additional security on Cherokee Street. But it became clear that resources very much are, or have been, tight in the police department."

Everyone involved acknowledges that the assignment that's put the two cops on Cherokee is hardly set in stone. Deem is worried about what their absence would mean for the street. It would leave the option of shelling out for additional security patrols, but there's really no replacing Guajardo and Garrett. Even if Cherokee's business owners hired off-duty cops, it wouldn't be the same ones daily building relationships on the street. Guajardo and Garrett have spent more than a year building their presence.

"The burden is shifting toward 'fend for yourself' kind of thing, to business districts paying for police," says Deem. "I think that's really unfortunate. I would argue that police are something that's paid for by the city."

It's worth noting that local beat patrols aren't unheard of in St. Louis. Some probationary officers are assigned to foot patrols with veteran cops, and the department will regularly send "directed patrols" to areas of high crime. Those officers might hang around for a few days before deploying elsewhere.

What's not common, says Rick Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, are "old style" beat patrols. Cherokee Street, with its relatively restricted geographic area, and residential and commercial density, is a perfect place for it.

"The Cherokee Street experiment is an ideal way of thinking of how to deploy additional police resources," he notes. That doesn't mean foot patrols could work for every neighborhood. In certain hard-hit areas of north city, by comparison, cops on foot would be at a disadvantage amid the long stretches of depopulated streets.

As opposed to the general label of "community policing," Rosenfeld calls the Cherokee patrol an example of "problem-solving policing" done right: "It's police being responsive to the self-identified problems in an area. They engage with residents, business owners, landlords, and the police response need not include arrest. It's quite effective in crime reduction that doesn't alienate community members."

Effective, perhaps, but it's not a replicable model, even for neighborhoods needing a flood of additional resources. St. Louis' newly appointed police chief, John Hayden, has touted his commitment to "community policing," but his immediate focus has remained trained on the crisis of homicides in north city. The department doesn't have the resources to do everything.

What that means for the future of Cherokee Street's beat patrol is unclear. Questioned about the possibility of expanding patrols to other neighborhoods, a department spokesman reiterates Hayden's encouragement for "officers to get out of their vehicles to talk with members of the community during their tour of duty."

"In regards to expanding regular foot beats throughout the six districts, like Cherokee Street in District 3, that will have to be examined as a special enforcement need," the spokesman writes.

The indicators may not bode well for 20th Ward Alderwoman Cara Spencer, who lobbied the department for years to bring beat patrols back to Cherokee.

"I know there's pressure to move them on to other things, and that makes me frustrated," she says. The success of the patrol doesn't necessarily show up with impressive arrest numbers or high-profile cases, but police work doesn't have to be flashy to make an impact.

Take a random attack — a "knockout incident" — near Foam several weeks ago, captured on surveillance. "You can show that to a regular 3rd District officer, and they've never seen that kid in his life," Spencer points out. "But the beat cops know him."

After taking the weekend off, Guajardo and Garrett are back on Cherokee the following Monday. Temperatures climb into the 50s during the day, bringing kids onto the basketball court. At night, the cold gusts return.

Behind the wind, a series of sharp cracks echo through the air. "Those were shots," Guajardo remarks. The radio on her shoulder crackles to life. "3700 block of Compton ... we got about ten gunshots going on ... shots being fired in an alley ..."

It's just after 7 p.m., and with most the businesses closed on Monday, the night has proven uneventful. The officers run into the same group of middle school kids from Friday; this time they're out by California Avenue. One kid is hanging off a stop sign. Guajardo tells them to go home. Further down the street, a man — a known drug addict — runs down the sidewalk, arms pumping like he's running a 100-yard dash. It's not immediately apparent whether he's running from or toward something. His hat flies off in the wind, and a nearby barfly shambles into the street, picks it up and hands it to the officers. (Later that night, the officers are able to reunite man and hat when they spot him panhandling a pedestrian.)

"At the end of the day, we're still officers," says Guajardo. She and Garrett are sharing a table inside the Taco and Ice Cream Joint, and both pick at generous portions of fruit piled in plastic cups, an unsolicited offering from the restaurant staff.

Neither cop has any illusions about staying on the Cherokee beat forever. Guajardo says she eventually wants to join the sex-crimes unit. Garrett is interested in homicide.

"We are aware that any day we could be removed from Cherokee. It's permanent, but it's not permanent," Garrett muses. "We could get a new captain tomorrow and we'll be back in the district."

Suddenly, they stop eating and talking. Guajardo grins and looks to her partner. From the restaurant's stereo comes a telltale island rhythm, a familiar chorus asking, "Whatcha wanna do, whatcha gonna do ..."

"Is that—?"

"Oh, they got us," says Garrett, laughing into her fruit cup as "Bad Boys" blasts through the restaurant. "They got us good."

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