It was April 2015, and John Nations left the office of St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar feeling hopeful.
Nations, the president and chief executive of Bi-State Development Agency, the organization created by a federal compact to build and operate the MetroLink transit system in the St. Louis region, was trying to finish up contract negotiations with the county’s police department.
Public safety on the region’s transit system is handled by contract with the three law enforcement systems that serve the footprint of the Metro transit system: the city of St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Clair County in Illinois. Historically, each of those entities has appropriated tax dollars to Metro, which then pays the police agencies according to the contract.
The county contract had expired in 2014, and negotiations on renewing it were taking longer than Nations had expected.
A contract attorney by training, Nations thought he and Belmar left the April meeting on the same page.
“Chief Belmar was very accommodating,” Nations said.
A few days later, a county officer emailed Nations the draft of the contract.
It was nothing like the one to which he and Belmar had agreed.
“I was rather surprised to see the complete change of provisions that not only do not comport with our discussion Monday, but in the case of the final accounting, completely removed any ability we had to get a refund for monies paid when SLCPD does not perform the services,” Nations wrote in an email to Metro Department of Public Safety Chief Richard Zott and other Metro executives.
• This is Part III
The Post-Dispatch obtained the email and other records in an open records request that raised serious questions about county police officers shirking their duty toward patrolling MetroLink trains and platforms. Among other things, the records and video showed county police officers covering a camera in a police substation for hours at a time, congregating in police substations, sometimes appearing to be sleeping and reporting inaccurate information to Metro officials on their whereabouts.
The contract as proposed by the county would not satisfy Bi-State or federal auditors, Nations wrote back in 2015.
Nations also wrote the county police department to outline the same concerns.
The details of the contract changes desired by the county are laid out line by line in an email from Zott to Nations. Nearly all of the changes — nine in total — reduce the ability for Bi-State to track officers’ actions and financial accountability.
Among the changes sought by the county:
• Removing the 3 percent yearly cap on cost increase.
• Removing the requirement that the county document overtime costs.
• Removing the requirement that county officers use the “deggy” system that allows supervisors to track movement from station to station.
• Removing Metro input over daily management of police manpower.
• Making it harder for Metro to remove poorly performing officers from its system.
The changes would have been unique among the three contracts Metro has with its partner law enforcement agencies. In the city of St. Louis and St. Clair County, contract provisions require a variety of accountability measures.
“I have to account for the money that comes to me,” Nations said. “If I can’t account for it, that’s a huge issue with my board.”
After letting the county police department know about his objections, Nations heard nothing for several weeks.
When Nations ran into Belmar a couple of months later, he asked the chief what was up.
“He said the ‘ninth floor’ took over the contract negotiations,” Nations said of Belmar. That is a reference to the floor on the county government building where St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger’s office is.
A year later, in April 2016, Nations heard from Jeff Wagener. The chief of policy for Stenger wanted to meet with Nations. So Nations went to the county government center in Clayton and met on the ninth floor with Wagener, who handed him the proposed new policing contract between the county and Metro.
It was similar to what Nations had received from the county before.
He objected to Wagener, suggesting the contract required Bi-State to pay the county police for services, even if the county didn’t pay Bi-State from transportation funds.
Wagener didn’t budge, and no progress has been made on the contract. There was another meeting in August, but none since then to address the issue.
“I have never heard from them again, even to this day,” Nations said Monday.
At a time in which Stenger has said he doubled the number of county officers patrolling the transit system, there is no accountability in place to determine what police officers are actually doing. When violence spiked this year, Stenger blamed Nations for not signing the contract with the county.
But in the meantime, the County Council passed a budget ordinance to spend $4 million directly to the police department from the county’s transportation funds — passed by taxpayers to fund transit services.
Wagener said in a statement sent by a county spokesman that he got involved in the contract discussions at the request of Belmar. “Crime on MetroLink had become a concern, and Chief Belmar determined that his department must have control over its officers,” the statement said.
Since Friday morning, Belmar has so far declined a request to discuss the allegations about his officers detailed in public complaints as well as Metro memos, emails and videos. Speaking to reporters at an unrelated press conference Monday, he defended both his own leadership and the MetroLink security work of county officers and called for a stop to the “finger-pointing” and “infighting.”
With no contract in place, Nations did sign a memorandum of understanding that was produced by Stenger and other political leaders in the region, including St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson. The memo is nonbinding and specifically says it is not a contract. It suggests a vague outline of cooperative efforts to be taken by the various entities responsible for public safety on the Metro transit system.
That memo aside, the lack of accountability in the contract and financing between St. Louis County and Bi-State mirrors concerns the records obtained by the Post-Dispatch raise over such issues in daily policing of the transit lines.
In January, for instance, Zott told Nations and others in an email of the problem he was having connecting the dots between weekly reports he received from St. Louis County police Capt. Scott Melies about county police activity and Metro’s own dispatch records.
“Not to belabor the point,” Zott wrote, “but as in previous cases, there are inaccuracies, embellishments, and selective reporting in most of the reports we receive from the county.”
With no contract, and relations between county police and their Metro counterparts diminishing, tracking results at a time when crime is spiking on the transit system is next to impossible.
And that’s a shame, Nations said.
He would rather not be in a fight with the county police. In the department’s hallways hangs a picture of Nations’ father, Gus, who was chairman of the county’s Board of Police Commissioners between 1973 and 1978.
“The system has to be safe,” Nations said. “I think what the system requires is quality, vigorous law enforcement. We need to make sure all the law enforcement organizations are performing with the highest professionalism. The county is the leader of the task force, and our expectations are that they will lead by example.”