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Tony Messenger is the metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

MetroLink station opens at Cortex

A train approaches the new MetroLink station in St. Louis' Cortex tech hub on Tuesday, July 31, 2018. The station is MetroLink's 38th and the first to be paid through a public-private partnership. Photo by Cristina M. Fletes, cfletes@post-dispatch.com.

For nearly two years, a dark cloud has followed the 50 officers who work for the Metro Public Safety Department every time they enter St. Louis County.

The officers, who work for Bi-State Development and were hired to help keep the MetroLink public transit system safe, have all graduated from police academies and are POST-certified to work in law enforcement in Missouri.

But when they ride the MetroLink in St. Louis County, they don’t write tickets.

Not if they see a fare evasion. Not if they see public drunkenness, or a drug deal, or an assault.

They are afraid they might be arrested.

“There is a lot of trepidation by our officers,” says Metro Public Safety Chief Richard Zott. “It’s a cloud. Just being charged could have an adverse effect on their careers.”

The problem is St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch. In 2016, he threatened to prosecute eight Metro officers for impersonating a peace officer. The dispute arose when both the city and St. Louis County recognized a problem with the identifying number on the ticket forms used by Metro officers. It had been accepted for years, but because Metro wasn’t officially its own police force recognized by the state — it has federal recognition — controversy ensued.

Metro officers continued writing tickets in St. Clair County on the Illinois side of the system. And the city reached an accommodation after a few months.

But not St. Louis County.

Zott and his boss, Bi-State CEO John Nations, hope the election of Wesley Bell, who defeated McCulloch in the Democratic primary for prosecutor last week, changes things.

“We believe that everything should be done to make the system safe,” Nations says.

If his officers had actually committed a crime, then why no prosecution, he wonders?

“We’ve never heard anything from Bob McCulloch about the case,” Nations says.

A spokesman for McCulloch didn’t return a phone call or email seeking an update on the status of the investigation, if there is one. A similar inquiry a few months ago was also ignored. A spokesman for Bell said he is aware of the issue and plans to review it once he takes office in January.

At the time that McCulloch announced that Metro officers could no longer write tickets in St. Louis County, he offered differing explanations of what the problem was. But the end result was the same: Riders of MetroLink knew that there was little chance starting in 2016 that there would be fare enforcement in the county.

That made the system less safe, Nations charges.

So does this: It’s been about the same amount of time since the St. Louis County officers riding the trains stopped using the same radio frequency as the Metro officers, making communication when crimes are seen much more difficult.

Until 2016, all of the police officers who rode the trains, from St. Louis city and county, and St. Clair County, used the same frequency. Around the time the county started having issues with how Metro wrote tickets, that changed. The county, and then the city, changed frequencies.

Despite a memorandum of understanding signed by all the political leaders of the system in May 2017 that they would fix their communication problem, officers in the city and St. Louis County still use a different frequency. That memorandum came about in part as a reaction to a series of columns I wrote in 2017 about county officers caught on camera sleeping in offices and putting tape on cameras to cover their tracks.

“We need to be on the same frequency,” Zott says. “Everyone was on the same frequency before, and it worked extremely well.”

Capt. Scott Melies of St. Louis County, who supervises law enforcement on the entire system, declined an interview through a spokesman.

In an email, county police spokesman Shawn McGuire said the effort to fix the radio frequency problem is still in the “technology phase, attempting to figure out if it’s possible to be on the same frequency. Once that phase is over, it will then move to the cost analysis phase.”

Sheriff Richard Watson of St. Clair County agrees that the communication problem should be a priority.

“That’s the key to this whole thing,” Watson says of safety on the transit system. “I want to see some kind of commonality with communication. If everybody works together, we can secure this line from the airport to Scott Air Force Base.”

Watson is doing his part. He has started to allow his officers to ride into the city of St. Louis to help make that part of the line more secure. Watson said 95 percent of the people who ride MetroLink from his area want to go to the city, for work or entertainment, so making the accommodation made sense.

It’s that sort of cooperative effort that Nations says he still doesn’t see from St. Louis County, where his officers can’t write tickets, and even if they could, couldn’t talk on the radio to the county officers who also secure the line.

“Our relationships and the results we see from them have been very good in St. Clair County,” Nations says. “We need that kind of cooperation on the Missouri side of the river.”

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