Metro-East News

The MetroLink isn’t as dangerous as you think, investigation finds

Eric Rasmussen hopped on the MetroLink to go to the Casino Queen to pass the time while workers fixed a gas line at his home.

The 48-year-old from Maplewood, Missouri, didn’t have much luck that November evening in 2016 and left with $6 in his pocket.

He headed back to the East Riverfront station in East St. Louis. While sitting on a bench alone on the elevated platform, two young men came up the stairs and sat down next to him.

“All of a sudden I felt something hit the side of my face and then I heard (one) say, ‘Give me your money,’” Rasmussen later told police.

One of the assailants pointed a gun at Rasmussen, who handed over his $6 and tried to leave. He made it to the stairs when he heard a “loud boom” and hit the ground. He had been shot in the back.

Rasmussen fell down a few stairs, yelling for help. He eventually crawled down the rest of the stairs and managed to press an emergency call button. He was left partially paralyzed until surgeons were able to remove the bullet.

Incidents like this have helped fuel a perception that riding MetroLink is dangerous, leading to a decline in ridership. But a Belleville News-Democrat investigation found that crime on St. Louis’ light-rail system is relatively low when compared with the total number riders, and violent crime is rare.

“Perception is reality. If you perceive something is safe, you feel you’re safe. If you perceive it’s not safe, then you’re not safe,” St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson said.

The News-Democrat gathered and analyzed police call data and crime statistics and found:

  • There was less than one violent crime — such as homicide or robbery — on MetroLink for every 100,000 boardings in 2016, and 1.4 violent crimes per 100,000 boardings in 2017. By comparison, 8.39 people per 100,000 Illinois residents died in a motor vehicle crash in 2016, and 8.5 in 2017.

  • Across the system, there were 142 serious crimes on MetroLink in 2016, or 18 percent of the total crimes reported. In 2017, there were 197 serious crimes, or 23 percent of all crimes. These included killings, shootings, aggravated assault and rape.

  • Misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, such as drug offenses and illegal weapon possession, were virtually unchanged from 2016 to 2017. In 2016, there were 776 total crimes reported, of which 634 were of a less-serious nature, In 2017, there were 829 crimes reported, 632 of them less serious.

  • Overall, there was 5.06 crimes reported for every 100,000 ticketed passengers who boarded MetroLink in 2016. That number increased slightly to 5.87 in 2017.

  • In what may be a hopeful trend, crime numbers dropped the first five months of 2018 on MetroLink in St. Louis County. Through May, police reported nine violent crimes, compared with 23 during the same period last year.

The BND compiled a first-of-its-kind database that shows every call a police officer responded to along the entire 46-mile MetroLink system in both Missouri and Illinois.

Click here to load this Caspio Cloud Database
Cloud Database by Caspio

Bi-State Development, the agency that operates the light-rail system, said recently that ridership declined by nearly 2 million riders from 2015-17, in part due to people’s fears over crime and their safety. About 16 million people boarded MetroLink in 2015, based on the number of tickets sold. By the end of 2017, that number was down to 14.1 million.

Because it’s impossible to track unpaid riders, the actual number of people boarding the trains each year could be higher.

The BND’s finding that crime is low compared with the actual number of people who ride MetroLink comes at a time when efforts are being made to beef up patrols and increase security on trains and platforms.

Shootings in the St. Louis metropolitan region can be “a blip on the radar screen” for news media and the public, St. Louis County Police spokesman Sgt. Shawn McGuire said, but violent crimes on or near a MetroLink train or platform becomes magnified, he said, making citizens believe the system is crime-ridden.

“We do believe (MetroLink) is safe,” McGuire said. “I think there are a few outlier things that happen, but that happens everywhere. There’s stuff that happens at different nice spots of the county, too, and nice spots of the city. That’s just crime in general.”

The public perception that violent crime has increased on and near MetroLink is not without justification.

In a one-year span, from November 2016 to November 2017, a man was shot at the Brentwood station; a rider was shot and killed at the University of Missouri-St. Louis South stop; a man was arrested after assaulting a security officer at the Fairview Heights station; a homeless man was shot and killed on the Busch Stadium MetroLink platform; a MetroLink security officer was shot while checking fares at the Wellston stop; and several days after Rasmussen was shot in East St. Louis, the same assailants shot Belleville resident Michael McCord in the throat at the Swansea station, leaving him with a permanently hoarse voice.

This June, a man was assaulted and brutally beaten near the Rock Road and UMSL South MetroLink stations. The victim was traveling westbound when six men repeatedly kicked and punched him in the face. He suffered an orbital bone fracture, facial fractures and other injuries, police said. Three men have been charged.

In the last week, however, MetroLink security has been back in the news.

A woman was attacked at the Union Station stop after telling a group of people to lower their voices while on the train. A security guard at the station tried to intervene but was unable to stop the attack.

Two men were shot Tuesday, one fatally, at the Grand Boulevard bus station, which is just above the Grand MetroLink platform. The shooting was preceded by an argument at a restaurant down the street between one of the victims and the shooter, who has not been apprehended.

According to the BND database, the stops that saw the most police activity during a three-year period were North Hanley, with 7,307 calls, Rock Road with 3,979, and Fairview Heights with 2,660. Police activity can include patrols, parking lot checks or other calls, not just calls to police reporting crimes.

But crime is declining overall, thanks in part to increased police patrols.

“We’re seeing that trend throughout the system,” Scott Melies, MetroLink unit commander and a captain for St. Louis County Police.

Yet, the reality is fewer people are taking MetroLink.

Metro officials attribute that decrease to several factors, including the security perception as well as lower gas prices, an increase in rideshare services and fewer downtown events, including the relocation of the St. Louis Rams.

Eric Rasmussen, the man shot at the East Riverfront stop, declined to be interviewed for this article. But his sister, Jan Johnson, says people have reason to fear.

Johnson believes some basic security measures, such as fences or other barriers, turnstiles, or simply putting a guard on the platform, could have prevented the shooting that injured her brother.

“There’s absolutely nothing to prevent anything from happening,” she said.

Javar Hicks, Deangelo Franklin, Shaquille Turner and a female relative enter the East Riverfront MetroLink platform on Nov. 22, the night Eric Rasmussen was shot at the station. Hicks, Franklin and Turner have since been sentenced for their roles in the shooting, as well a shooting on the Swansea platform. St. Clair County Sheriff's Department

Mending a broken reputation

The wave of violent crimes seen on MetroLink in 2016-17 was launched into the public consciousness as political leaders and law enforcement officials started discussing safety improvements.

The shootings and other violent crimes threatened to damage the reputation and financial well-being of MetroLink as a whole, a St. Clair County prosecutor argued at the sentencing for one of the men involved in the East Riverfront shooting of Eric Rassmusen.

“These MetroLink shootings have to stop, or one of two things is going to happen,” Assistant State’s Attorney Erin Conner said. “Either we will have to increase security measures at an additional cost to taxpayers, or people are just going to stop riding MetroLink ... And decreased revenue, which will only hurt the county as a whole.”

Law enforcement leaders have worked to secure thousands in additional dollars to improve MetroLink security to hire or assign more police officers to the line as ridership declines.

Those efforts come after a 2017 memorandum of understanding that called for a joint law enforcement task force for the light-rail line and set goals for improving safety. St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger signed that memorandum.

“I think the trains are safer, but we can’t sugar-coat it, we have a long way to go,” Stenger said at a Citizens for Modern Transit luncheon. “I think we have additional things that need to happen, additional things we want to see, but we have seen some nice progress on the memorandum of understanding.”

Krewson and Kern could not be reached for comment.

Recently, the St. Clair County Board and St. Louis City aldermen approved a measure to allow St. Clair County deputies to patrol MetroLink in the city.

To prevent crime, police departments and agencies also increased the money they put toward securing MetroLink.

Metro pays St. Clair County $1.4 million for sheriff’s patrols on the system, while St. Louis County and City allocate their own resources to provide law enforcement.

St. Louis County allocated about $4.2 million to have 44 officers secure the line during the 2017-18 fiscal year, up from 19 just three years ago.

In February, the St. Clair County Transit District approved paying $125,000 for three additional St. Clair County deputies to patrol MetroLink. The sheriff’s office in the spring of 2017 also allocated an additional $300,000 to assign more sheriff’s personnel to patrol the system from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.

What the region needs to gain back the public trust is a unified message from all regional leaders, and a stronger private security force employed by Metro, said Melies, the MetroLink unit commander for St. Louis County.

“We know perception is going to lag behind performance,” Melies said. “As it improves, people are going to start realizing it has improved. I think when you’re talking to politicians, they’re talking about why they’re doing things. We’ve done all this stuff. It has been a couple-year project to get this ramped up, because we did see an increase in crime a couple of years ago, but now we’re getting it under control because of the things we’ve done and the things we’re doing.”

It’s a police officer’s responsibility to respond to a violent crime, but the experience on the train and basic security “is a job for Metro,” Melies said.

“If it were a safe, well-run transit, you would need fewer police, not more police,” Melies said. “I feel like a lot of this clamoring for extra police is making up for what’s lacking in what Metro is doing as an organization for the transit.”

Richard Zott, the chief of public safety for Metro, says security on the train is a group effort.

“We have to rely heavily also on our police partners and we hope and ask they ride the trains frequently and all the time,” Zott said.

For many years, MetroLink used employees of Whalen Security. In the coming months, Metro will seek proposals for a new security contract with a private company. The $3.8 million contract with the current company, Securitas, is expiring. The St. Louis County MetroLink commander says the trains’ security depends on improvements to the contract.

“It’s imperative we get this contract right,” Melies said.

Riders mixed on safety

Every rider has a story to tell about their experience on MetroLink — stories from people who feel safe taking the train every day, and stories from people who are too afraid to take the train at all, whether it’s because they heard about a shooting on the news or were themselves a victim of a crime.

On a sunny Friday morning recently, Jacqueline, a 50-year-old Ferguson, Missouri, resident, waited for the bus at the North Hanley Station. She didn’t wish to share her last name.

Jacqueline says she doesn’t take MetroLink because she has seen violence reported in the news, although she hasn’t personally been a victim of or witnessed crime on MetroLink.

“It’s real bad. You’re always looking over your shoulder,” Jacqueline said. “I would feel better if there was more police out here patrolling.”

Metro buses provide no guarantee of rider safety. A person was recently killed on a MetroBus in Cool Valley.

North Hanley is the busiest station in terms of police activity. It serves as a transfer point to buses and has a large public parking garage near Jennings, one of the municipalities with the highest amount of crime in St. Louis County, according to county police data.

Passengers load and unload from eastbound and westbound MetroLink trains stopped at the Scheel Street Station in Belleville in this BND file photo. File Photo Tim Vizer

North Hanley had the most calls to police reporting drug violations and assaults from 2015 through 2017 of all MetroLink stations. The Delmar Loop stop only surpassed North Hanley in the number of calls reporting shots fired in 2017.

These numbers are not an exact reflection of actual crime committed. Only a fraction of calls reporting possible criminal activity end in a police report, the St. Louis County Police spokesman McGuire said. Each call in the News-Democrat’s database does reflect a police officer activity.

For example, St. Louis County police responded to 126 calls of trespassing at or near MetroLink stations in 2017, but only 25 cases ended with a police report being written.

A higher number of riders on the Missouri side of the system, as well as high-crime neighborhoods in north St. Louis, contributed to the City and St. Louis County showing more crimes than on the Illinois side.

Commuters such as Josh Knapp find the train convenient and are comfortable taking it day or night. Knapp, who lives in downtown St. Louis, takes MetroLink from Eighth and Pine to Rock Road five days a week as part of his commute to his sales job.

He gets on the train about 10:30 a.m. and comes back home around 10:20 p.m. Knapp, originally from Beckemeyer, Illinois, says he feels safe on the train.

“I sit down, I keep to myself, I usually waste time on my cell phone until I get to where I want to go,” Knapp said. “Every once in a while you see somebody that may be a little intoxicated, or playing their music too loud, things that might annoy you, but I never felt not safe. Security will frequently come on and check your tickets and passes.”

Knapp said he once saw a shouting match after a man accidentally grabbed the wrong bag, but it did not escalate beyond a verbal argument.

“Almost four months I’ve been taking it, and that’s the craziest thing I’ve seen,” Knapp said.

Tyrone Jackson, 48, of East St. Louis, takes the MetroLink every day to go to work and see his friends on the Missouri side of the river.

Despite negative public attention, Jackson said he feels safe taking MetroLink, though he supports increasing security.

“The city is thriving. It’s growing,” Jackson said. “You’ve got a lot of people who are coming to visit here in St. Louis. Of course you need to start tightening down security..”

“Anything can happen anywhere,” Jackson added.

How much crime is there, really?

Everyone wants to know—is it safe to ride on MetroLink?

Chuck Wilbur, a 47-year-old computer programmer from Belleville who frequently takes MetroLink to and from the airport, asked the question in a different way. He wonders whether anyone really knows how much crime there is on the system.

“Do we really know how much?” Wilbur asked. “They’re talking about doing (a) $400,000 (study) ... which implies to me we don’t really know how much crime there is and how it compares to other cities.”

To keep transit systems in any city safe, police use data to inform them on how to best allocate their officers.

In the St. Louis region, this is doubly complicated by the fact that the light rail system stretches across 15 police jurisdictions, three of which take the lead in responding to MetroLink crime — St. Louis County, St. Louis City and St. Clair County.

Further complicating matters, four governmental entities are involved in operating MetroLink: the Bi-State Development, also known as Metro, the city of St. Louis, St. Louis County and the St. Clair County Transit District.

To get back to Wilbur’s question — do we really know how much crime there is on MetroLink? The answer is yes, but it’s complicated.

The federal government serves as the only standardized system for sharing information between police departments responsible for patrolling MetroLink. Police departments send crime data, called Uniform Crime Reporting, to the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

The two counties, the city and Metro share data on recent crimes and crime trends during twice-monthly meetings, Melies said.

Melies combines the data in a spreadsheet so he and other security officials can review it together at their meetings.

“I think we’re doing the best we can right now,” Melies said. “We’re basically taking the official statistics, putting it into one central location, the task force, and we analyze and use that data amongst ourselves internally.”

However, that is a recent development, and no one had a comprehensive picture of police activity spanning over several years until the BND compiled its own database.

Monitoring police activity

Crime statistics show the total crimes where an officer wrote a police report, but they don’t reflect how officers spent their time, or trends in where calls are coming from. To do that, you need call logs.

Those are detailed logs of all police activity — from responding to a 911 call reporting shots fired to a routine parking lot patrol.

Police use call log data like this to track where their officers are going and what they’re doing. Analyzing call log data can show the busiest stops and inform law enforcement about how to best deploy their officers.

Police departments responsible for patrolling light-rail systems in other cities, such as Minneapolis, collect this information so they can analyze police activity.

Minneapolis has a dedicated police force responsible for law enforcement on the city’s light rail. The chief of Metro Transit there has said police rely on data to find hot-spots and decide where police should patrol.

Only St. Louis County and City police use the same reporting system for their calls, with the county taking the lead in enforcement. Metro maintains its own records, as does the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department and individual municipal police departments where the tracks run through.

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said there is a way to put all calls for service into a common system, which would allow area police departments to study where calls come from.

“If you look at it over time, one year doesn’t help you, two doesn’t really either, but if you start getting four, five, six years under your belt, and take a look at call data coming in, you could begin to figure out what your problems are, (and) what used to be issues that are no longer issues,” Belmar said.

But with reliable data only dating back to 2016, tracking crime on MetroLink over a significant period of time is still a work in progress.

One initial step would be going to a common radio communications system, which would allow police and security guards on MetroLink to communicate easier.

Currently police and security use a combination of cell phones and radio communication.

“Right now it’s somewhat fractured on the radio side because we’re on different radio frequencies,” Zott said. “If you’re on the same common radio frequency, you just pick up the microphone and you transmit the information. I think that it’s much more efficient to have everyone on the same radio frequency.”

The MetroLink commander said police and Metro are working out the details on how to pay for a common radio system. There is no official timeline for implementing such a system.

Metro security guards are not allowed to make arrests. They are allowed to detain suspects, but they are then required to call police for further assistance.

Despite their limited arrest power, security guards don’t always call police when they need to, Melies said.

Zott said it’s rare for a security guard to not call police. Calls from security guards go through Metro’s dispatch center, which then calls the appropriate police department. Sometimes that process fails, Melies said.

“Again, the difficulty comes in when you’re not on the (same) radio system,” Zott said. “You’re making a phone call to a person, a call-taker. That call-taker contacts the dispatch center, the dispatch center contacts the police officer. You have more opportunities for something to fall through the cracks.”

An ounce of prevention

Law enforcement leaders agree a police presence can deter crime as well as make riders feel safer, though police say their efforts often are overshadowed by crime counts.

“Numbers can be deceiving in that they don’t show what is proactive enforcement,” said St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department Lt. Michael Hundelt, who oversees MetroLink patrols in Illinois.

Stepped-up patrol efforts in both Illinois and Missouri resulted in higher warrant arrests and fewer fare violations:

  • St. Louis County police increased the number of guns they seized from 22 guns through May 2017 to 41 guns in the same period of 2018.

  • St. Louis County Police made 518 arrests in 2017, up from 307 in 2016.

  • St. Clair County saw fare violations drop by more than 200 between 2015 and 2017.

The decrease in fare violations was the intended goal of increased parking lot checks and extra patrols by the sheriff’s office, said Watson, the St. Clair County sheriff.

Fare inspectors do their part, too, but there are far from enough inspectors to go around.

“They’re out there every single day,” Zott said of the fare inspectors. “But if you look at it, if you’ve got 30 fare inspectors covering seven days a week, 21 hours of operation, and at any one time we’ve got 20 to 25 trains, you may not always see them.”

Melies, the MetroLink unit commander, says Metro needs to improve and grow its pool of private security guards.

Hours of standing in extreme weather may not attract the best candidates.

“We need to support and attract better guards through pay or working environment,” Melies said.

Melies said there’s not enough guards to make sure stations are covered while someone takes a break, which opens up the opportunity for crime.

“These three counties hire Metro to provide transit, and we give them a lot of money to do it,” Melies said. “We need to hold them accountable for what they spend their money on.”

Are barriers, turnstiles the solution?

At the time MetroLink was built, new light-rails opening around the country tended toward open systems rather than the older, closed systems with turnstiles and barriers, such as Chicago’s L Train or New York City’s subway.

St. Louis’ light-rail does not have connecting train cars, making it impossible for police or passengers to move from car to car in case of emergency while the train is moving. Not adding turnstiles or barriers also saved money, a cost savings some law enforcement leaders now wish had been spent to improve security.

“It was the cheapest way to get light-rail started in communities that had no experience with light-rail previously,” said Patti Beck, director of communications for Bi-State Development, the agency overseeing MetroLink.

Both Watson and Belmar agree the system’s open design is flawed. If riders are required to go through a turnstile, it would be easier to spot someone who clearly hasn’t purchased a ticket, Watson said.

“It doesn’t have to be elaborate. If you’re walking over to the turnstile and put your ticket in and go in, and Joe comes over and jumps the turnstile, then he probably doesn’t have a ticket,” Watson said.

Belmar said he hopes closing the system, at least partially, would decrease the necessity for police on the platforms and trains.

“You can’t put 180 cops on this thing and make crime go away, so let’s do common-sense things to make people feel safer,” Belmar said.

Riders like Wilbur, the computer programmer from Belleville, think turnstiles could work.

“I think it works spectacularly for BART in San Francisco, it works for the L (in Chicago). I think that would probably be cheaper and more effective than just adding security personnel, and leaving everything else the way it is,” Wilbur said.

But turnstiles are not “a panacea” to reducing crime on the system, Zott said.

Zott pointed to closed-system transit lines such as Atlanta’s public train system, which saw a string of homicides in late 2016 and early 2017, as evidence for the fact that barriers don’t stop all crime. Though he says he’s open to exploring barriers for MetroLink, Zott said he does not want to create a false expectation of safety and security.

A guard or police officer is still needed at every stop to make sure people don’t jump the turnstile, Zott said.

“If barriers work, I would be happier than anyone else in the room, but we don’t want to build false hope. You put in barriers ... and everything is going to be wonderful. Because it’s not,” Zott said.

Making MetroLink safer

The East-West Gateway Council of Governments awarded a contract in March to a New York-based firm to conduct a $400,000 study of MetroLink security. The assessment will include a review of security policies and practices, and a comparison with similar-sized agencies. The consultant then would develop recommendations on how to improve security.

The study is expected to take six to eight months, said Jim Wild, executive director of East-West Gateway.

In addition to the study, a project to experiment with “access control” on MetroLink is planned to begin later this month.

Fencing and “other materials” are planned to go up at the Fairview Heights, Forest Park and North Hanley stations, Wild said. The goal is to direct riders to the platforms through one point at the stations and allow for a place to check for paid fares. This study is separate from the $400,000 security assessment.

050217DH check tickets
A Metro security guard checks passes and tickets at the Fairview Heights MetroLink station. Derik Holtmann

It is expected to cost about $50,000 and Bi-State Development, Citizens for Modern Transit, St. Louis City, St. Louis County and St. Clair County are contributing to the barrier study.

“They would probably be looking at fencing or some other type of barrier, (and) bringing people through a single entry point as opposed to having multiple access points to a platform,” Wild said. “As people are coming through, security guards or other staff would look at fares and ensure people would have paid fares before they’re allowed to get onto the platform.”

The fencing would be up for four to six months, Wild said, adding the entities are looking to learn about fare collection and “how people are going to accept possible future changes in design to the system to limit access to the platform.”

Safety on MetroLink is key if the system is going to be successful in the future and help with economic development, said Beck, the Bi-State spokeswoman.

“We’re a part of this community. We move this community. We’re an important asset for economic development. We get people to work every day and to school to better their lives,” Beck said.

In an ironic twist, MetroLink stations are also “beacons” of safety in the community — a safe place for a victim of a crime to run to, even if it happened several blocks away, Beck said.

“They go (there) because they know they could get help and the police will come,” Beck said. “What it does show, we’re not immune to what’s going on in the community, but when it comes to very serious incidents or crimes, there are very few on our system.”

Reporter Joseph Bustos: 618-239-2451, @JoeBReporter
Reporter Kelsey Landis: 618-239-2110, @kelseylandis