May 21, 2018

Former East St. Louis police chief combats gun violence

Michael Hubbard said he believes only one of the three men who threatened him with a gun intended to kill him.

The first man, Hubbard said, simply stole his bag of candy as 12-year-old Hubbard walked out of a corner store.

The second dealt drugs and threatened teenage Hubbard when he tried to buy marijuana.

The third man pulled a gun after Hubbard bumped into him outside of a club. The man’s friends pulled him away, saving Hubbard’s life.

Hubbard said he would never forget all three men used .38 revolvers.

“When it comes to guns, I will say I am a pro-gun guy,” Hubbard said. “I love my guns… so I really believe it’s not the gun, it’s the person and how we raise our children.”East St. Louis, it had crime,” Hubbard said. “We had gangs coming up, but I was used to my environment. I knew where to go and where not to go, but the good and the bad actually catapulted me to try to strive to where I am now.”

All three events occurred in Hubbard’s hometown of East St. Louis, where he encountered both perpetrators and victims of gun violence. Hubbard grew up in the city and eventually became its chief of police. He said he worked to end gun violence and better the city’s reputation because of his love for the community.

“I love my community, but it’s just things in my community I don’t like because I know that it could be a whole lot better,” Hubbard said.

Reaching the children

Hubbard said growing up, he and his friends ran up and down the streets, playing and talking about their futures. He said his love for the city outshined his fear or apprehension about the prostitution, drug dealings or crimes happening a few blocks away.

Despite the city’s challenges, Hubbard said he and his wife never questioned whether to raise their two children in the place he promised to protect and serve. He said he simply needed to ensure his children had positive role models, as he believed they were essential in preventing violence.

His belief inspired him to work with “problem kids” at Katie Harper Wright Elementary School in East St. Louis.

Hubbard and most of his family live on the same street.
Photo by Christine Tannous

Hubbard said he met with children in their library every week and began introducing various careers through special guests. He said outsiders may view the children of East St. Louis as troubled, but he wanted the children to know they always had options and were powerful.

“I told [the children] to be on time,” Hubbard said. “Be respectful. You’re special. Never let anybody tell you what you can do.”

In his house, Hubbard said he wanted his children to see the best of the city while keeping their view realistic. He let his daughter Makayla accompany him to crime scenes when the department called him in after hours, though he did not let her exit his truck. She said she knew the danger associated with her city but said she could not imagine growing up anywhere else.

“Most people think of growing up in East St. Louis they probably can’t get out of the city, they probably won’t make it anywhere,” Makayla Hubbard said. “My dad taught me no matter where you come from you can still make it, you can make your dreams come true.”

Providing resources

Michael Hubbard served as an East St. Louis policeman for 22 years, spending two years as police chief before retiring in 2017. During his time at the department, he said he wanted to prevent crime, not simply make arrests. He said he did as much as he could with an inadequate number of officers and started “hotspot policing.”

Hubbard said he pinpointed the city’s most crime-ridden areas and created a schedule for multiple officers to police the locations at seemingly random times throughout the week.

Isiah Sherrod has served as an East St. Louis police officer for five years. Sherrod said he did not work on one of Michael Hubbard’s teams but saw their results. He said the program lowered crime and created trust between the community and the police department. Michael Hubbard’s form of policing came from an open mind and his ability to understand the community, Sherrod said.

“The officers I saw growing up were strict,” Sherrod said. “They were stern. They were hands on. I’ve never seen [Michael Hubbard] police like that.”

When previous gun offenders left prison, Michael Hubbard said he wanted to ensure they did not simply act compliant in front of officers. He said he wanted to give them opportunities to succeed.

Michael Hubbard said during their probationary periods, he brought speakers to their monthly meetings. The guests were other officers or people who lost family members to gun violence. Before the meetings ended, he said he would ask the offenders if they had jobs. He said he would then step outside his job requirements and connect them with other groups in the area to help them find what they needed.

“My thing was, let me find a way to connect all these pieces instead of every agency trying to do the same thing,” Michael Hubbard said. “Let’s do it together.”

Power of prayer

Karen Hubbard, Michael Hubbard’s mother, said she did not want to know everything her son experienced on the job. After being the wife to a firefighter, she said she learned to put her worries in God’s hands, something both she and Sherrod saw Michael Hubbard do on multiple occasions.

“You don’t know what you’re going into when you get a call,” Karen Hubbard said. “You just have to ask God to direct you. When [Michael Hubbard] was over the department, they had prayer every morning before all the officers went to the street.”

Sherrod said the police department was divided, but Michael Hubbard’s dedication to the department and religion brought moral to both among officers and between the department and the community.

Michael Hubbard said he felt called one day to drive by a house known for criminal activity and saw a group of men with guns standing outside.

“I pulled up in my squad car and uniform,” Michael Hubbard said. “I just knew they were going to run, but I rolled down the window and said, ‘Hey, it’s okay. Y’all don’t have to go nowhere. Y’all can imagine what we’re about to do.’ We got in a circle and prayed right there.”

Hubbard preached about the importance of recognizing blessings and letting go of anger.  Photo by Andrew McMunn

Michael Hubbard said he did not know what God had in store for him, but he never planned on leaving his city.

“[East St. Louis] is one of those things where you got to just dig in on the garbage and all the dust, and you see this beautiful diamond,” Michael Hubbard said. “I think that’s what’s happening now. That’s why I still live there.”

Michael Hubbard’s Webster Presence 

Michael Hubbard spoke to The Journal in April. The staff felt the stories he shared offered an unparalleled insight into crime, gun violence and life in East St. Louis. The Journal was fascinated by his love and dedication to the community where he has faced some of his scariest moments.

Michael Hubbard said he and his fellow officers once responded to a home invasion that resulted in a dangerous situation for the group. Michael Hubbard said he should have approached the house without the lights or sirens of his police car blaring. He did the opposite, and the mistake saved his life.

Hubbard entered the home through the front door, while the suspects–armed with AK-47s and assault rifles–exited out the back.

“If any police officer tells you they’ve never been scared, they’re lying,” Michael Hubbard said.

Read more stories about St. Louis and it’s efforts to curb gun violence and crime at the Gun Violence Project website.

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