CLAYTON • After months of tension stemming from policing aboard MetroLink, a proposal to beef up the St. Louis County police presence on the trains emerged Wednesday to address recent attention-grabbing crimes.
County Executive Steve Stenger wants to double the number of county police officers assigned to the trains, park-and-ride lots and other facilities to 44 from 22.
Those additional officers will include sergeants, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said. He had voiced concern about Metro Transit’s bolstering the number of MetroLink public-safety officers it employs, saying a better use of money would be to hire more police officers to address passenger safety concerns that have contributed to a 15 percent drop in Metro ridership in the last two years.
“I think it’s a great idea. It’s long overdue,” Belmar said of the additional officers.
He said he wouldn’t pull officers out of their precincts and would phase in the additional MetroLink officers as new hires were trained.
Increasing staffing will allow more officers to be on the trains and platforms, he said — now, many must be in cars so they can respond quickly to calls for service.
“When you see a police officer, it changes the dynamic of the environment,” Belmar said. “People feel safer.”
State law bars Metro from having its own police force; instead, the law provides that the transit agency “may only employ peace officers through contracts with law enforcement agencies within the bi-state service area.”
So policing duties aboard the trains and stations currently are handled by 42 police officers and deputies from the St. Louis Police Department, St. Louis County Police Department and St. Clair County Sheriff’s Office, in addition to roughly 40 public-safety officers employed by Metro. The agency also contracts with the security firm Securitas for 110 full-time-equivalent security guards, including 17 fare inspectors.
And more officers could be coming.
St. Louis police have met with Metro and expressed interest in increasing city officers on MetroLink, a police spokeswoman said, although no further details were available.
“Safety is our #1 priority. With 26 MetroLink stations in MO and 14 stations in the City & at Airport … more @SLMPD officers makes sense too,” Chief Sam Dotson said via Twitter.
No such move is afoot in St. Clair County, where Sheriff Rick Watson said Wednesday that the current police presence didn’t need to be boosted.
The proposal for more St. Louis County police came in response to recent crimes on MetroLink, Stenger said in a statement.
Late last month, a man on a MetroLink platform was shot in the leg at midday by a stray bullet fired in a dispute between two groups, police said.
And charges were filed in recent weeks against two men for allegedly robbing a MetroLink passenger on Dec. 11. The victim was beaten and bloodied, and he said at least 100 people had looked on but did nothing as he was attacked and robbed.
“Members of the public need to feel confident that MetroLink trains and stations are safe,” Stenger said in a statement Wednesday.
The statement also said the police officers would also assist Metro staff in supervising security and fare enforcement personnel.
The cost of doubling county patrols would be absorbed by the half-cent mass transit sales tax approved by voters in 2010, but needs the approval of the St. Louis County Council. About $2 million a year comes from that fund to pay for officers, according to Stenger’s office, and that number would grow to nearly $4 million with the additional officers.
The fund has about $35 million in it, with $2.5 million coming in monthly.
John Nations, president and chief operating officer of Bi-State Development, which oversees Metro, commended Stenger for taking action to thwart additional criminal activity on the light rail routes.
“It’s welcome news,” Nations said, because Metro must rely on local law-enforcement through contracts.
The idea of additional police has been brewing in recent months.
The board of directors of Citizens for Modern Transit, which advocates for MetroLink expansion, passed in January a resolution calling for doubling the number of St. Louis County police officers assigned to MetroLink and, if needed, for the county to direct money from a sales tax passed to fund transit toward more police on trains.
Kim Cella, the nonprofit’s executive director, hailed on Wednesday Stenger’s proposal to do just that, saying that MetroLink is a critical part of the St. Louis region’s public transit system.
“We need to make sure the public has confidence in the transit system,” she said. “Safety has to be a top priority.”