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MetroLink says new security approach is beginning to work, but hurdles remain

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ST. LOUIS — A little more than a year into an overhaul of security on the region’s mass transit system, Fredrick Watford has noticed a change on his daily commute.

“A lot more peaceful,” Watford said Tuesday afternoon on the way to his job at St. Louis Lambert International Airport from downtown. “A real big improvement. It’s good to know I can get on the train and know security’s going to be there.”

MetroLink’s contract security guards, clad in yellow vests, boarded at the Civic Center stop and walked the train, checking for paid fares before getting off at the next stop. Another guard paced the platform at the Forest Park-DeBaliviere station, a transfer point between the red and blue lines. Two of MetroLink’s top security officials were at the next station, Delmar Loop, walking the platform.

“More guards at the stations, more guards on the trains — they’re actually doing their jobs,” said Blake Harmon, who hopped off at the North Hanley station. “I give ’em a thumbs-up on that.”

MetroLink has had a crisis of confidence over public safety in recent years, with high-profile crimes garnering headlines on a system that serves thousands of commuting workers. For many tourists and job candidates heading to the central corridor from Lambert, the system is often their first impression of St. Louis.

But a new contract with a private security firm that took effect last year, and efforts to repair relationships with the three police agencies that patrol MetroLink, has begun to right the ship, Metro officials say.

The system is finally collecting aggregate crime data and releasing it publicly. Police agencies and area leaders in early 2020 inked a security plan that lays out each agency’s role. The region’s planning arm and consulting firm WSP continue to grade the system’s progress in implementing recommendations from WSP’s Metro security report.

“It was probably some of the best money that the region has ever spent,” former Ballwin police chief Kevin Scott, hired as Metro’s general manager of field security in a 2019 Metro security leadership shakeup, said of the WSP report.

Demonstrating that the system is safe, and that police and Metro security are working together, is essential if the public transit system hopes to regain the region’s confidence after a year when the pandemic slashed ridership by half.

Yet, even as Metro officials touted improvements to police coordination and the system’s deployment of private security guards, one of those guards, James Cook, was shot and killed on the Delmar platform in January. The homicide came after Metro reversed a policy under its prior leadership that allowed private security and Metro’s in-house security to carry guns.

Despite public criticism of the policy change, Taulby Roach, who took the helm of Metro parent Bi-State Development at the beginning of 2019, remains committed to unarmed Metro guards.

The firearms policy shift was one piece of an overall pivot in Metro’s approach to safety since Roach took the helm, when he pledged his top three priorities would be “security, security and security.”

Roach moved quickly to shake up the system’s security brass, ousting its former public safety chief and installing new leaders like Scott with a different approach to securing the system: back off efforts to create a dedicated transit police agency in order to reset its relationship with area police agencies, particularly St. Louis County.

“We’re going to stay in what our lanes are,” Roach said in an interview Tuesday. “We’re going to work on transit and customer service. But we’re going to leave the policing to the police. I think that’s a really key aspect we have shown over my two years here.”

Design changes at some stations to increase visibility and decrease loitering are underway, and Bi-State officials plan later this year to buy better cameras for the system and build out a real-time camera monitoring base to improve both security and operations.

Yet hurdles remain. The three police agencies that patrol the system — St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Clair County — still can’t agree on a shared radio frequency years after the idea was discussed. Crime data is only just now being collected on a system-wide basis, and statistics for 2020 and 2021 show crimes per boarding increased. A pending change in how all police agencies report crime will make future comparisons difficult. And some riders recently told the Post-Dispatch they haven’t noticed an increase in security personnel or fare checks over the last year.

Metro officials insist the system’s safety is improving because of better relationships with police and better deployment of Metro’s in-house security and contracted guards, even if the latter two don’t have firearms. Metro’s contracted security, about 100 or so people, do carry pepper spray, handcuffs and expandable batons, while Metro’s roughly 43 internal security staff carry those items plus stun guns.

On a random ride Tuesday, two St. Louis County police officers rode an eastbound train from Lambert before getting off at the Wellston station near the city line. Roach says they now travel into the city limits to assist other police agencies. It’s a far cry from years past, when political infighting led to press reports that embarrassed county police with photos of off-duty officers taping over security cameras in the wake of an impasse on a county policing contract. Former St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch refused to even prosecute fare violations in the county, a policy finally reversed in 2019 after he was defeated by Wesley Bell.

Most of the people who led the various clashing agencies are gone. Trust is slowly being repaired, Roach said, which is essential to “start showing that we have our act together.”

“And I think we do.”

A new contract

The WSP security assessment, underway before Roach’s arrival and the shakeup in Metro security personnel, pointed to gaping holes in the system’s security operations, including weak oversight in Metro’s contract with its private security guards, little fare enforcement, and discord among political leaders and police agencies over the system.

In April 2020, G4S Secure Solutions replaced Securitas as the private security contractor on Metro under an up-to-five-year, $28.5 million contract.

“As Metro was attempting to build a police agency, and law enforcement was countering that effort, the contract security level in place at the time, which is the most visible level of security on the system, had very little to no oversight,” said Scott, Metro’s field security chief.

“They were deploying security in ways that a typical security company would guard a fixed asset. There was no visibility, there was no fluidity on the system. There were long-stagnant deployments in static locations where security guards were losing interest, were involved in unprofessional behavior. … There was a complete disintegration of an overall public safety structure.”

A G4S software program has guards check in electronically at various points across their route in order to keep them mobile and moving between platforms and trains.

“I’ve been everywhere from Laclede’s Landing to Forest Park,” John Rice, a G4S security guard, said during his shift earlier this month. Usually, he’ll make that rotation five or six times a day.

Rather than policing, about 90% of what Metro security does is customer service, staying visible and addressing nuisance behaviors, such as smoking or loud music, Scott said. The head of G4S’s Metro security detail, former St. Louis Police officer Billy Reynolds, works closely with Scott, who said he is “part of the team,” a change from Metro security’s relationship with its past contractor.

The foundation of the system’s security strategy, Scott said, is fare enforcement. Prior to the 2020 security agreement signed by area police agencies, “Metro employees and security teams were not doing fare enforcement in St. Louis County,” Scott said.

Regular riders who spoke with the Post-Dispatch in the past week also reported fare checks were frequent now, something the 2019 WSP report said was “rarely visible.”

Reynolds said private and Metro security write 400 to 500 fare violation citations a month now, which doesn’t include any citations written by police agencies. He added that security guards often will allow passengers to get off at the next stop and purchase a ticket if they don’t have one.

Meanwhile, Metro is building a secondary pool of contracted police agencies that can provide off-duty officers to supplement police and security personnel stationed to the system. Bi-State announced a deal with the St. Louis Sheriff’s office, which patrols courthouses, to begin providing extra security in the city in December 2019, and expanded it in September. St. Clair County also has an agreement for off-duty deputies to work part time on the system.

Recently, Bi-State added the Normandy Police Department to that list, and Scott said it’s looking to add other municipal police departments along the MetroLink line. Meanwhile, a similar agreement with St. Louis County Police is under review.

Those extra officers can be deployed as the system needs them, supplementing, for instance, lower staffing from a thinly stretched St. Louis Police Department that assigns fewer officers to the system.

Finally collecting data

Secondary police deployments can be guided by incident trends on the system — data Bi-State only recently began collecting in an aggregate format after hiring an in-house data analyst to compile system-wide security statistics from the police agencies.

“That system has not always been in place, and that was recently put in place under this plan,” Scott said.

MetroLink publicly released numbers from 2020 — its first year reporting the data and a reversal from the system’s past policy, when it refused to release numbers and claimed exemptions from public records laws.

And though the 2020 numbers it released show overall crimes were down, to 490 from 785 in 2019, crimes per boarding were up 21% in 2020, driven by the 50% collapse in ridership. Scott emphasized that of the 6.7 million boardings last year, only 66 crimes were classified as serious, such as robbery, burglary or aggravated assault.

The agency also released preliminary numbers for 2021, which show 190 total crimes on MetroLink through April, compared to 176 during that time last year, 282 during that time in 2019 and 260 in 2018. Crimes per boarding increased through March this year to around 12 per every 100,000 boardings, compared to roughly six per 100,000 that time last year and close to seven per 100,000 in the first quarter of 2019.

Scott said the system’s numbers could also be affected by a more engaged security presence and said overall crime is not out of the ordinary.

“The perception is Metro Transit is dangerous, and that is not the case,” Scott said. “Do we have incidents on the system? Absolutely. But if you take a look at the rate of incidents that we have, it’s not out of norm to other agencies across the country.”

Still, not everyone is convinced the change in approach has led to more visible security on the trains.

“I laughed when they said they added more security,” said Ronald Meyer, who rides every day to his own security job downtown from the Belleville area.

Heading home from work Tuesday, security guards came through to check fares at the East Riverfront station as the train crossed into Illinois.

“First time in probably a month,” Meyer said after displaying his pass.

Reynolds said security staffing is “data-driven” and will respond to different parts of the system based on recent trends. Asked about the Illinois commuter’s comments, Roach said there has been a recent increase in security presence on the red line in St. Louis County and there will be shifts based on crime trends.

“There will be some times where there’ll be some changes in personnel associated with what we’re seeing out there,” Roach said. “So it doesn’t surprise me.”

Still, the skeptics have to be convinced if Metro hopes for ridership — the best security — to recover.

“We have to resell this system back to the region,” Scott said. “Because what makes people feel safer on the MetroLink are crowds.”

Keanna Swims-Spellman is one of those people who is back. She’s been riding for a few months now from downtown to her job at the airport. She said she’s seen more security, particularly at the North Hanley station. Recently, there was a drunk man passed out in the aisle when she was on the train. Security guards got on at the next station, she said, and escorted the man off. They were “very professional,” she said.

“They do the best that they can,” she said. “But tragedy can still strike.”

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