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MetroLink violence exposes rift between St. Louis County and Bi-State

Man shot dead on MetroLink train near UMSL

Akila Jackson, 20, arrives at the Univerity of Missouri-St. Louis station near Natural Bridge Road on Thursday, April 6, 2017. A man was shot and killed April 5 on a MetroLink train at the station. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

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ST. LOUIS • Three of the region’s top leaders will meet next week to discuss security enhancements for MetroLink in the aftermath of recent violence — including a fatal shooting on Wednesday.

Perhaps the most revealing detail of that meeting is who wasn’t invited: Bi-State Development, the agency that oversees MetroLink.

In an interview Friday, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger said that he, along with St. Louis Mayor-elect Lyda Krewson and St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern, needed to create their own plan to address safety concerns, and then present it to the transit agency.

“We want to approach Bi-State with a united front,” Stenger said. “Bi-State has not been cooperating very well … and I believe it’s been the same in every jurisdiction, which is why we have the issue we have.”

Stenger said the agency had refused to sign contracts, resisted new technology and spent money on security guards instead of sworn officers — all as part of an effort to create its own police force.

Bi-State President and CEO John Nations denied the allegations.

Under the bi-state compact that governs the agency, Bi-State receives annual appropriations from each of the three counties. Out of those funds, Bi-State pays law enforcement in those jurisdictions to police MetroLink. If the counties want more officers at the stations, Nations said, they can appropriate more money.

“It’s not our determination; it’s their determination,” Nations said.

But the counties have begun to locate other sources of funding to police MetroLink outside of Bi-State’s control — in effect cutting the agency out of the process.

More than a year ago, the county nearly doubled the number of officers patrolling MetroLink with funds from a special sales tax. In Missouri, the MetroLink police unit has 38 county and eight city officers.

St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department puts about a dozen deputies on trains in Illinois. Kern said Friday that he believed he had found a way to have a sheriff’s deputy on each train, but he declined to discuss specifics.

As for failing to sign a contract, Nations said that Bi-State proposed only one change to its agreement with St. Louis County. It was a provision that said the agency would have to pay county police only as long as it received its annual payment.

Nations maintained that MetroLink would be safest with its own police force but said that wasn’t the only way to make sure the system is safe.

“My board has never voted to authorize us to have our own police force,” Nations said. “There’s never even been a motion to do it. I frankly don’t know why this is an issue.”

Stenger and Nations have offered vastly disparate figures for the cost of retrofitting MetroLink stations with turnstiles.

To large extent, MetroLink operates on the honor system. Riders pay for a ticket, which is time stamped and must be presented to MetroLink employees upon request. But those requests are infrequent.

Nations said he didn’t really know how much it would cost to retrofit the stations with turnstiles. But when the agency looked at that option several years ago, it estimated the cost to be in excess of $100 million.

“The system was designed as an open system,” Nations said. “It cost $1.8 billion to build what we have.”

A local facial recognition technology company has provided Stenger with a much lower figure for installing turnstiles.

Joseph Spiess, a senior partner of Blue Line Technology, said MetroLink representatives visited Blue Line’s offices in Fenton in November 2015. They discussed security options that included using facial recognition software along with turnstiles.

Under that scenario, a person would buy a ticket and present his or her face to a camera at a turnstile that cross-referenced facial features with a database of a people deemed possibly dangerous — such as those wanted for violent crime. If the person’s image was in the database, the turnstile would block him or her.

“The reception was not real good,” Spiess said. “I’ll just put it to you that way.”

But St. Louis County hired Blue Line to install cameras with facial recognition technology at the county courthouse and jail. Speiss said Stenger asked for an unofficial ballpark figure for installing turnstiles along with facial recognition technology at all MetroLink stations.

Speiss contacted a turnstile company and put together a $10 million estimate, which included stations in Illinois as well as Missouri. The largest variable was the cost of reconfiguring entrances to accommodate the devices.

Speiss said the company looked at pictures of several stations and told him that it appeared MetroLink was designed for turnstiles.

But it appears facial recognition technology and turnstiles wouldn’t have prevented Wednesday’s shooting. Both the suspected shooter and the victim were on probation for violent crimes. Neither, however, had a warrant.

This article was corrected to add first name of St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger.

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Stephen Deere is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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