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Assaults, crimes on MetroLink visible on social media while numbers hard to come by

Assaults, crimes on MetroLink visible on social media while numbers hard to come by

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The public has seen brutal attacks on MetroLink passengers and security guards — maybe not in person, but through video and photos posted on social media or in news coverage.

Fall 2016 saw a series of violent incidents: A security officer shot at the Wellston stop. A man shot in the face at the Swansea stop. A person shot in a suspected robbery at the East Riverfront station. A passenger attacked and robbed at the Delmar station.

And on Sunday, a man was fatally shot as he stood on the Busch Stadium platform. Mac Payne, 57, was killed when a gun went off inside a train during a beating. A bullet passed through a window and struck Payne in the head.

“If we don’t fix this, MetroLink is going to fail as an enterprise,” said Vincent C. Schoemehl, a member of the board of commissioners of Bi-State Development, which oversees Metro Transit. Riders will avoid the light-rail system no matter how many new lines get built if they don’t feel safe, Schoemehl said.

He called for a dramatic increase in security forces on the trains and platforms.

It’s impossible to glean a deeper understanding of MetroLink’s safety based on the available data.

While information about fatal crashes is available to drivers and widely reported, and crime data kept by police departments also is a matter of public record, those who rely on MetroLink are kept in the dark about safety on trains and platforms that see 16 million boardings each year.

“I can understand why some people are scared to ride the train,” said Constance Hilliard, 26, at the Civic Center station Tuesday. She said she has seen fights, drugs and robberies on MetroLink, and that more security is needed.

But Candace Monroe, who has commuted to work and events downtown from Belleville for 10 years, said she “can’t say she’s ever felt unsafe.”

She said she is less comfortable riding the train at night through areas she’s not familiar with, “But even when I’ve felt a little uncomfortable, I can’t say I’ve ever felt unsafe. I’ve had people asking me for money, but I’ve never felt threatened.”

In fact, most riders interviewed by a Post-Dispatch reporter on Monday said they felt safe on the trains, although many still wanted better security.

Multiple jurisdictions

The system’s 37 stops sit in multiple jurisdictions, which leads to difficulties in collecting data. And when a police officer makes a crime report, it may or may not be labeled as being at a MetroLink stop or platform.

Metro Transit won’t release its data on reported incidents, saying the numbers it keeps don’t paint an accurate picture of crime and that compiling statistics is the job of the police agencies it contracts with.

The Post-Dispatch since October has sought crime data for the last five years for reported crime on MetroLink trains and platforms.

Bi-State Development responded in a letter that it doesn’t “generate and maintain” crime data and police reports, and that it doesn’t have to comply with public-information laws because it’s an interstate compact agency. It operates in Missouri and Illinois.

“In addition, the Agency also reserves the right to close any record at its discretion if the Agency deems such closure to be in the Agency’s best interests,” said that letter, signed by Barbara Enneking, Bi-State’s general counsel and deputy secretary.

Metro’s budget, which is supported by taxpayers, is about $309 million, with roughly 43 percent coming from St. Louis County.

Metro’s refusal to release crime data doesn’t sit well with County Executive Steve Stenger.

“It’s a publicly funded agency,” he said. “To skirt transparency in the name of basically what amounts to a loophole in the law is not the way to do business when you’re doing business with taxpayer dollars.”

John Nations, Bi-State’s president and chief executive officer, said crime information should come from the police departments that patrol MetroLink because they have the most accurate data.

“We don’t release incomplete or misleading information,” Nations said.

Messy data

A state law on the books since 1993, when MetroLink opened, bars Metro Transit from having its own police force. About 215 people provide security, including 38 county and eight city officers, as well as about a dozen St. Clair County Sheriff’s deputies, 120 security guards and 37 Metro public safety officers.

But security guards and public safety officers cannot write tickets or make arrests.

Crimes that occur on a MetroLink platform or train or on the tracks are recorded by the three police agencies. But the way crime is documented means that it’s sometimes difficult to use police data to identify whether a crime occurred on a platform or outside of a station. In some cases, an officer might list an address of a station for the location of a crime, but not include the word MetroLink, making it difficult to later query the data to get a comprehensive accounting of crime.

Additionally, incidents that occur in a MetroLink parking lot or just outside of a station are typically handled by a local municipal jurisdiction, making it difficult to identify the number of incidents without requesting crime reports from more than a dozen municipal police departments.

St. Louis police on March 8 provided the Post-Dispatch a spreadsheet of incidents at MetroLink stops, many of which were noncriminal in nature. But a quick Google search turned up a 2013 homicide at the Laclede’s Landing station that was not on the spreadsheet. The Post-Dispatch also found several assaults and robberies written about in news articles or included in other publicly available crime data that were not included in the incidents provided by city or county police.

The data indicated a drop in incidents at city MetroLink stops, but that was mostly attributable to the vanishing incidence of farehopping. Since 2015, the records included a total of only five instances of failing to pay a fare in the city.

That’s the year a change in state law and court procedures took effect that allowed only St. Louis County and St. Louis police to write fare evasion summonses on the Metro transit system in Missouri, which led to a significant decline, Metro said.

Federal authorities earlier this year denied a request by Nations that would have allowed Metro public safety and security officers to once again write tickets.

Excluding noncriminal offenses, city police recorded just over 100 incidents at the city’s 10 MetroLink stops in 2016, many of them crimes that would not be included in FBI statistics. Aside from transgressions such as disturbing the peace, public urination and trespassing, there were 11 robberies, 17 assaults and 15 thefts recorded, as well as a handful of drug possession and unlawful use of a weapon incidents.

To try to isolate more serious incidents that would be included in city crime figures, the Post-Dispatch also analyzed data available from the city police department website. Excluding less serious offenses, in 2016, there were 59 crimes where MetroLink was specifically referenced as a location, including station parking lots.

St. Louis County police reported 48 serious crimes in 2016, an increase over the previous year that probably resulted from more officers being stationed at platforms. The number of less serious offenses not counted in final county crime totals nearly tripled from 2015 to 2016, to 433 incidents, with drug crimes being the most common offense.

Numbers requested from the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Office were not available Thursday.

Sharing information

Richard Zott, Metro’s chief of public safety, said his department finds out about MetroLink-related crimes most of the time, but that the county has its own radio frequency and there are times when a crime occurs and Metro never learns of it.

He also said that what people look for in crime statistics is an accurate summary of what happened, which could be different than how an incident is initially described — something Metro doesn’t tally, and that police handle.

“We’re not a police agency, so we don’t deal with that kind of data,” he said, although his agency does do weekly trend analyses.

He said ongoing discussions about the best way to share data have been happening for the last six or seven months, and are continuing.

“We know enough to know we don’t know all the numbers,” said St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar of MetroLink stats.

He wants to see a computer-aided dispatch center specifically for Metro, with a dedicated phone number. Such a setup would give a fuller picture of crime.

The Metro Transit Police Department in Minnesota that serves the Twin Cities and surrounding areas has used such a system since 2008, and replaced it earlier this year to link to the same systems used by police departments in its coverage area, said Tim Lynaugh, business technology manager for the transit police.

Every vehicle has a GPS transponder, which allows the dispatch center to select and route the closest car to a call for service.

“For all of us to see each other in real time brings all the advantages for getting the closest squad car to the scene,” Lynaugh said.

His agency’s crime statistics are available upon a records request. Others go even further — the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority posts daily blotter reports and other crime reports on its website.

Ending a free ride

To further cut down on crime, Belmar would like to see turnstiles added to MetroLink stations to better secure the platforms, saying the convenience of open platforms is outweighed by people who congregate there for reasons other than catching a train.

St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson said he’d like to devote more officers to the MetroLink unit, but said he doesn’t have enough to do so — the department has about 1,200 officers, which is 1,000 fewer than it had in 1970.

He also supports turnstiles, and wants them installed at the new MetroLink station being built within the Cortex technology district to see how they work.

A previous estimate showed that adding turnstiles would cost $100 million, something Stenger disputes. He said a $10 million proposal was submitted for turnstiles and facial-recognition technology for MetroLink, although Nations said he has never seen it.

Until something more permanent can be done, Bi-State board member Schoemehl, who spoke to the Post-Dispatch Thursday on behalf of out-of-town board chair David Dietzel, said he would recommend creating a board-level security commission to work on safety issues.

Schoemehl, who was mayor of St. Louis when the first MetroLink line was designed, said he’ll ask that Metro put an officer capable of making arrests and issuing tickets on every train car and every platform, an endeavor that comes with an estimated $31 million price tag, about double what is paid now.

As the days tick down before voters on April 4 decide whether to support a sales-tax hike to help pay to expand MetroLink, and before Cardinals fans headed out for opening day on April 2 make their way to the station where Payne was killed, some riders remain uneasy.

Jalexys Cookwood, 16, said she needs the MetroLink any time she has to leave her home in University City.

“It kind of made me not want to get on the train for a little while,” she said of Payne’s death. “But I had to because I’ve got things to do.”

Staff writer Nassim Benchaabane and staff photographer J.B. Forbes contributed to this report.

Crimes at MetroLink stations

City of St. Louis 2016

The figures include Part 1 crimes (which are more serious and are reported to the FBI) and less serious Part 2 crimes (which are excluded from the city's annual crime totals)

  • Assault: 17
  • Disturbing the peace: 15
  • Stealing: 15
  • Robbery: 11
  • Public urination/defecation: 10
  • Trespassing: 6
  • Drug possession: 5
  • Unlawful use of a weapon: 4
  • Property destruction: 4
  • Drinking in public: 3
  • Receiving stolen property: 3
  • Prohibited conduct on public transportation: 3
  • Didn't pay fare: 2
  • Making/selling a controlled substance: 1
  • Marijuana possession: 1
  • Theft of firearm: 1
  • Panhandling: 1
  • Unspecified complaint: 1
  • Sexual assault: 1
  • Auto theft: 1

Crimes at Civic Center station, March 2012-present

During the past five years, the Civic Center station, one of the busiest, had the most crimes reported of any stop in the city. Most crimes recorded, however, were not violent and most weren’t serious enough to even be counted in the city’s final crime numbers. The number of incidents at the center has declined in recent years. 

  • Public urination/defecation: 13
  • Robbery: 10
  • Disturbing the peace: 10
  • Didn't pay fare: 8
  • Stealing: 8
  • Trespassing: 7
  • Assault: 6
  • Drinking in public: 4
  • Marijuana possession: 4
  • Prohibited conduct on public transportation: 3
  • Unlawful use of a weapon: 2
  • Impeding traffic: 1
  • Unclear: 1
  • Prohibited entry: 1
  • Exposing: 1

St. Louis County (including airport stations) 2016

The number of incidents has more than doubled since the county increased the number of officers patrolling stations in the county. The county also is far more populous and has more stations than the city.

Part 1 crimes

  • Larceny: 28
  • Assault: 15
  • Robbery: 8
  • Unlawful use of a weapon: 1

Part 2 crimes

  • Drug violation: 118
  • Miscellaneous: 74
  • Disorderly conduct: 54
  • Simple or other assault: 47
  • Trespassing: 35
  • Liquor violation: 29
  • Fraud: 22
  • Weapons violation: 14
  • Property destruction: 12
  • Littering: 9
  • Unlawful flight to avoid prosecution: 8
  • Stolen property offense: 5
  • Loitering: 5
  • Public intoxication: 3
  • Sex offense: 2
  • Pedestrian check: 2
  • Peace disturbance: 2
  • Counterfeiting: 1
  • Curfew violation: 1
  • Prostitution: 1
  • Criminal Nonsupport: 1
  • Runaway: 1
  • Incorrigibility: 1
  • Tampering with vehicle: 1

Source: Post-Dispatch analysis of data from St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, St. Louis County Police. Data for Illinois stations was not available.

Video of MetroLink assault, posted to Facebook

MetroLink beating video (WARNING, violence and explicit language)

They straight trippin Cuhh ..

Posted by Twan Davis on Thursday, March 26, 2015
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