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Bill McClellan: Dine and dash – how about some context?

Bill McClellan: Dine and dash – how about some context?

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IHOP restaurant in Clayton

IHOP restaurant in Clayton. Photo courtesy of Google Earth

If you read this newspaper, you already know the story about the 10 black students from Washington University who were stopped by Clayton police after the manager from an IHOP restaurant near the Galleria called in a complaint about four young men who had left without paying their bill.

The students turned out to be innocent. Completely innocent. They returned to the IHOP. The manager looked at them and told police that they were not the guys. So, of course, they were free to go.

Is Mississippi burning?

You might think so from the coverage we have given the incident. A front-page story. A column about “Eating While Black.” And then an editorial: “In the eyes of the police officers involved, apparently, 10 black youths walking down the street equals automatic guilt.”

But let me ask a question. What were the cops supposed to do?

First, let’s add a little context. Some businesses in the area of the IHOP feel under siege. Start with the Galleria. There was a fight there in June. Witnesses said up to 20 kids were fighting. Black kids. Police arrested eight. That same day there was a stabbing. I heard about it from a friend and I turned on the television news. An older white woman was interviewed. “I’m never coming back here,” she said.

Brick and mortar stores are facing strong headwinds already. If customers don’t feel safe, it’s over.

There is a hotel across from the IHOP. A friend of mine who used to live here came into town and stayed there. After the first night, he thought it was great. Not too expensive. A great breakfast. A nice gym. The second night, there were teens running in the halls. Black kids. They were yelling, laughing, making noise. My friend called the front desk.

“They said they were visiting somebody, sir,” said the kid at the desk.

My friend no longer stays at that hotel when he comes into town.

A nearby bowling alley has had problems with unruly teens. And the IHOP has had problems. Mostly, with kids not paying the bill. Dine and dash, it’s called. There have been more than 40 such incidents at the IHOP this year, according to police.

None of this is crime of the century stuff. But the business owners are concerned. They want the cops to do something.

So when the IHOP manager called the cops about the latest incident, the cops responded and saw a group of kids walking toward the MetroLink.

MetroLink. There is the magic word. Unlike most cities, our light rail operates on an honor system. You don’t need to buy a ticket to board a train. So kids who don’t have any money and are looking for something to do, ride the MetroLink to the Galleria. Who’d have thought kids might do that? Well, just about everybody but us. That’s why you need tickets in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and elsewhere.

This has caused a lot of problems. For one thing, businesses usually pop up near light rail stops in other cities. That has not happened here. Sometimes we have stories in which experts ponder this. Why aren’t businesses popping up near our MetroLink stops?

Duh.

Because we are a completely dysfunctional region, we cannot correct the problem. Turnstiles, which seem the most obvious solution, are apparently too expensive. What about giving people tickets for riding without paying? That becomes a jurisdictional issue. The prosecuting attorney in the county won’t prosecute tickets written by the MetroLink officers because they’re not really police officers. Or something like that. MetroLink officials are always feuding with everybody else.

So it falls on the cops to “do something.”

In this instance, the manager said the diners who left without paying were young black males. Two were wearing basketball shorts and white T-shirts; one was wearing black pants and one was wearing red. Very generic.

So the cops drove toward the MetroLink stop and there were a bunch of kids, black kids, some of whom were carrying bags from IHOP. Three of the kids had receipts. The kids who fit the generic descriptions did not. The cops then had everybody walk back to IHOP where the manager said these were not the kids.

It is a shame innocent kids had to go through this. They are victims. No question about that. But who are the real culprits? Not the cops. Not the business owners who demand the cops do something. How about the four kids who left without paying for their meals? Or the bright minds who came up with an honor system for MetroLink?

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