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A New Focus on MetroLink Safety After Fatal Shooting

Metro Public Safety officers ask a man why he is hanging around on Wednesday, March 22, 2017, at the MetroLink Station at 18th Street and Clark Street. One officer said that young men are trying to do their hustle at the station. "I just want them to go somewhere else," he said. "We have to make this station safe for our grandparents and our kids," he said. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

Public safety officers who patrol MetroLink trains stopped ticketing riders for failing to pay the fare — or for any other violation — more than a year ago, after being warned by local police.

The conflict raises questions about the validity of thousands of tickets issued over the commuter train service’s 24-year history.

St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch said his office stopped filing charges on citations issued by MetroLink’s public safety officers because of doubts about their legitimacy.

Leaders of Bi-State Development, the agency that oversees MetroLink, say they believe the inability to issue tickets is a factor behind a recent wave of crime — including several shootings — on MetroLink stations and trains.

“Among the criminal element … the word has gone out that two things are true,” said Vincent Schoemehl, chairman of Bi-State Development board of commissioners. “No. 1, they can’t write you a ticket, and No. 2, they can’t arrest you for anything. Well, that word travels …

“I’m convinced we are driving more drug trade and whatnot onto the train because they know nobody can arrest them. We have sort of made the problem worse.”

Bi-State said its officers were stripped of the ability to cite fare violators because of a problem with the ticket form MetroLink employees used. The issue was brought to the agency’s attention in an October 2015 letter from the police chiefs of St. Louis and St. Louis County.

The problem, the letter says, is a nine-digit identifier printed on the tickets. The number is used by the federal government to compile statistics and measure accountability of law enforcement agencies. MetroLink had been using the St. Louis County Police Department’s number.

Bi-State, the chiefs wrote, needed to apply for its own.

General agreement?

Until that point, Bi-State’s security personnel, some of whom were reserve officers from other cities, wrote tickets that bore the county’s Originating Agency Identifier, otherwise known as an ORI, which had been issued to the county by the FBI.

It’s unclear when MetroLink employees began using the number on their tickets or who authorized the practice, which Bi-State says dates to 1993.

“We believe that there was some general agreement between the various prosecutor offices regarding the citation forms that were to be used on the MetroLink system, but that agreement predates current staff employment and the only physical record of this decision is the citation forms themselves,” said Shirley Bryant, a Bi-State paralegal and assistant secretary to the board, in an email.

But the directive in the 2015 letter effectively ended the ability of Bi-State’s public safety officers to issue tickets to people who failed to pay the fare, Bi-State officials say, rendering the officers powerless.

McCulloch said his office stopped prosecuting fare violation tickets a little more than a year ago.

“Generally I think the tickets they are writing just aren’t valid tickets because they are not peace officers,” McCulloch said in an interview last week. “Only peace officers are capable of writing a summons or making an arrest for a misdemeanor violation, and the MetroLink employees, no matter what they call them, are not and cannot be peace officers.”

John Nations, president and chief executive of Bi-State since 2010, said he was stunned by McCulloch’s comments. County officers, Nations said, often witnessed Bi-State security personnel issue the tickets.

“Wow,” he said. “They would have to explain how someone could stand by them every day and issue summons which their court processes and their prosecutors prosecute.”

Complaints, arrests and crime are up

When St. Louis County police Capt. Scott Melies took over the county’s MetroLink detail roughly two years ago, he discovered that MetroLink was providing ticket books to both county police officers and Bi-State security personnel, said Shawn McGuire, a St. Louis County police spokesman.

Melies thought it was strange that the security officers, who had not been deputized by the county, were using the same tickets as county officers — tickets that contained the county’s ORI number, McGuire said.

“That’s when we put an end to Metro using our ORI,” he said.

Nations said no one had ever raised concerns about the citations.

“Our citation clerk, who has been in her position for 22 years, told me the court has never asked us to update our forms,” Nations wrote in a November 2015 response to the police chiefs.

Valid security complaints were trending up sharply at the end of last year, according to minutes from Bi-State’s Operations Committee meeting in January. Bi-State said those complaints were tabulated from customer phone calls and through social media channels.

Last spring, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger doubled the number of officers patrolling MetroLink, using funds from a special sales tax. In Missouri, the MetroLink police unit has 38 county and eight city officers. All are under Melies’ command.

The increased manpower, at least in St. Louis County, has resulted in a 158 percent jump in arrests for so-called part two crimes in MetroLink facilities, which spiked from 172 in the year ending March 30, 2016 to 445 during the same period one year later, according to police data. Part two crimes include drunkenness, narcotics violations, disorderly conduct and prostitution.

But those arrests, and that extra manpower, don’t seem to have made any significant dent in the more serious part one crimes, including robbery and assault, which rose from 44 in the year ending March 30, 2016, to 50 in the same period one year later — a 13 percent increase.

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said in a statement he believes the increased police presence has helped keep down serious crimes and that an increase of six in one year is “not remarkable.” “One year is too short to show effect,’’ he said.

Invalid tickets?

Security officers employed by MetroLink issued 11,477 tickets in Missouri in 2014 and 9,260 in 2015, according to Bi-State. Last year, the number was 3,490.

After receiving the letter from the police chiefs, Bi-State applied to the FBI for its own ORI number in December, but the application was rejected in February. Bi-State’s public safety department, the agency said, did not meet the criteria to be a criminal justice agency.

“The police departments we work with have told us they view fare enforcement as the responsibility of Metro,” said Patti Beck, Bi-State’s director of communications, in an email. “Therefore we are working to get the authority to resume that activity because fare enforcement is a critical component to the overall safety and security of the transit system.”

The proceeds from tickets MetroLink issued over the years — typically $25 — went to the jurisdictions in which the cases were prosecuted. In St. Louis, the cases were prosecuted as ordinance violations. But in St. Louis County, McCulloch prosecuted the violations in circuit court under state statute.

Through online court records search, the Post-Dispatch found nearly 4,000 misdemeanor cases filed since 2012 in St. Louis County circuit court where the sentence was incarceration, credit for time served or one or two days in jail. Docket entries indicate arrest warrants were issued when defendants failed to show up for court.

Despite his initial comments that MetroLink security personnel could not legally issue tickets for fare violations, McCulloch seemed to change his position later in the interview and in a subsequent voicemail message.

“That’s an argument that could go either way,” he said in the interview. “You can’t make an arrest. But the summons is not strictly speaking an arrest. It’s a summons to appear in court. It’s still not valid until the prosecutor signs off. Then it’s an actual charge.”

A week later, McCulloch left a voice message for a reporter about a state statute that allowed Bi-State to appoint personnel who could legally enforce rules and issue citations. That law also says the agency can only employ peace officers through contracts with local jurisdictions.

“They (Metro security) are authorized to issue a citation for fare jumping or whatever other regulation they might have,” McCulloch said in the message.

In some of the cases in which MetroLink officers issued citations, defendants failed to appear in court and were arrested. Were those arrests lawful?

“This is not something we have dealt with before,” said Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, a public interest law firm that represents low-income people, including the homeless. “If what McCulloch says is true, which is that these are invalid tickets, then all of the prosecutions are invalid. And it seems like St. Louis County has been really reckless in the prosecution of people ...

“I wonder if they might have claims against Metro and St. Louis County,” Harvey said.

On Wednesday evening, after this story was first published on the stltoday.com website, McCulloch called again and said the real reason his office stopped prosecuting those cases was that MetroLink operated on an honor system. He said he would not charge someone for failing to honor the fare system.

Asked about charges his office had recently issued for citations to MetroLink fare violators by county police officers, McCulloch said there might be some confusion on his staff.

He said his office will not file any more charges for fare violations unless turnstiles are installed at MetroLink stations.