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Man shot dead on MetroLink train near UMSL

Brian Cox stands underneath a heating lamp to stay warm as he waits for the train at the UMSL South station, at 7790 Natural Bridge Avenue on Thursday, April 6, 2017. A man was shot dead on a MetroLink train late Wednesday night as it pulled into the station on the University of Missouri at St. Louis campus. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS COUNTY • County Executive Steve Stenger’s administration struggled Wednesday to answer the most basic of questions about the role of MetroLink’s public safety officers.

Could they issue tickets in the county? Had the prosecutor’s office changed its policy about prosecuting violations? Had a new security agreement made a difference in crime over the past two months?

The answers were unclear.

After St. Louis police said this week that MetroLink officers could begin writing citations inside the city limits, Stenger said Wednesday morning on KMOX Radio that the same was true in the county.

“The Metro personnel, the security guards, are free to enforce the fare violations,” Stenger said on “The Charlie Brennan Show.” “They can in the city, and they can in the county.”

But last month, St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch, a political ally of Stenger, told the Post-Dispatch he had stopped prosecuting fare violations a year ago because MetroLink operated on an honor system and “if you don’t honor it, I’m not going to charge you.”

A citation has no power if it is not accompanied by the prospect of prosecution.

On the same radio show, St. Louis County police Chief Jon Belmar said he had spoken with McCulloch recently and the prosecutor had said, “yes, he will entertain not only the fare violation tickets that come from the police officers that ride the trains, regardless of jurisdiction, but he also will entertain the ones that come from Metro security.”

Entertaining charges is not the same as prosecuting them. But McCulloch could not be reached Wednesday to clarify.

Later Wednesday morning, when questioned by the Post-Dispatch, Stenger said he didn’t know what his police chief was referring to on the radio — despite having just publicly proclaimed that Metro officers could write tickets.

“I was a little unclear as to whether it was a change in policy or whether what he was talking about was consistent with that prior policy,” Stenger said. “I really can’t answer that.”

In October 2015, the police chiefs of St. Louis and St. Louis County sent Bi-State Development Agency, which runs MetroLink, a letter raising complaints about the agency’s police officers, including problems with the citation forms Metro was using. Those citations included 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. Bi-State, the chiefs wrote, needed to apply for its own number, rather than using the county’s.

Metro officers stopped issuing citations when they ran out of forms. Bi-State’s application to the FBI for a federal identifier was denied this year.

Officials from Bi-State have contended that the change rendered their officers powerless and was partly behind a recent increase in crime on MetroLink.

In a memo dated Monday, St. Louis Police MetroLink Commander Lt. John Blaskiewicz acknowledged that the city could not make the trains safe without Metro’s officers.

“I am grateful your team is back on the trains because the City cannot provide adequate visibility and security without you,” Blaskiewicz wrote.

Turnstile study

MetroLink stations have no turnstiles. Fares are enforced by inspectors who randomly ask passengers to show their tickets.

But on Wednesday, the board of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments unanimously approved Bi-State’s request for a $2.88 million federal grant to pay for a feasibility study and “initiation of design efforts on a barrier system” for MetroLink stations.

The total cost of the study would be $3.6 million, with $720,000 coming from Bi-State’s own funds.

Stenger said in an interview after the meeting that he wants “a closed system.”

“The objective of the barrier should be to keep those who seek to commit crimes and do people harm out of the system,” he said.

Stenger also clarified a statement he made last week about eight MetroLink public safety personnel accused of impersonating law enforcement officers. Stenger said county police had “presented those charges” to McCulloch.

Stenger said he understood McCulloch had not decided whether to prosecute.

Stenger referenced a photograph of a MetroLink public safety officer’s badge that his office had provided the Post-Dispatch. The badge identifies the officer as sworn law enforcement.

Metro is prohibited from employing peace officers except through contracts with the jurisdictions it serves under the compact between Missouri and Illinois that governs the agency.

However, that same compact, which is federal law, also empowers the agency’s public safety employees to enforce laws that pertain to Metro’s operations. Metro’s rules and regulations are also state law.

“Our public safety officers, to the extent that they are enforcing the rules and regulations of Bi-State Development, are law enforcement officers,” said Barbara Enneking, Bi-State’s General Counsel and Deputy Secretary.

Stenger and Belmar both declined to respond to questions about any distinction between peace officers and law enforcement officers.

Politics or safety?

Both Stenger and Belmar said a new memorandum of understanding signed by Stenger, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern last month was already having a significant impact on safety.

In a news release, Stenger said serious crimes, such as robbery and assault, had dropped by 50 percent. While April saw four such crimes, there were only two in May and two in June.

Last month, the Post-Dispatch reported that since the county had doubled the number of police officers it devoted to patrolling MetroLink, serious crimes had risen to 50 from 44 in the year between March 30, 2016, and March 30, 2017 — a 13 percent increase.

At the time, Belmar issued a statement that said: “One year is too short to show effect.”

On the Brennan show, Belmar also said: “I think the finger pointing has stopped. This is about ridership safety at this point.”

Later that day, Stenger accused Bi-State board member and former St. Louis Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr. of using MetroLink issues to weaken Stenger politically.

Schoemehl supports Mark Mantovani, a prospective Stenger challenger in the Democratic primary next August.

“I think Vince’s attacks directed at me are a matter of politics and not public safety,” Stenger said. “I think it’s a real shame but I think that’s what’s going on.”

Schoemehl agreed that his recent criticism of Stenger was indeed driven by politics — but not his.

“I am supporting Mantovani because Stenger has demonstrated neither the mind to comprehend nor the moral inclination to develop or follow good public policy,” Schoemehl said. “The county’s involvement in MetroLink security is in my view 100 percent politically inspired and driven by Mr. Stenger.”

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