Is MetroLink really so dangerous?
“I would change your whole security model. I would immediately change it,” was one recommendation that came out of a panel of transit security experts on how to improve the region’s light rail system.
Capt. Lisa Hinz, head of security for Sacramento’s regional transit system, was one of five transit experts from across the country who came to St. Louis for a presentation Friday on how security on MetroLink could be improved.
The presentation part of a $400,000 transit security study commissioned by the agencies that oversee MetroLink. Transit security leaders from Washington D.C., Minneapolis and Portland also joined on the panel.
The study, which was approved in March, set out recommendations for improving MetroLink security. The final recommendations will be released in December, but panelists and the study’s lead supervisor, Lurae Stuart, outlined those recommendations at their presentation.
“We need to get people on the same page,” Stuart said. “The system is not broken. There’s just some rust on the tires. We need to figure out that new look that meets the current environment and what that means for Metro and Bi-State.”
The Bi-State Development Agency owns and operates the MetroLink and Metro Transit.
Here are some of the early, broad recommendations outlined in the study:
- Increased emphasis on Metro and private security officers with support from law enforcement;
- Encourage private security officers to ride the trains, not stay on platforms;
- Coordinated enforcement and community engagement efforts among the different security agencies;
- Improved surveillance capabilities with closed-circuit television technology;
- Better communication ability through a single police radio frequency;
- Stronger management of private security team;
- Defined ways to measure private security performance;
- Campaigns in the media with “consistent and clear” messaging to improve public perception of MetroLink;
- Consistent training for all security personnel;
- Collect data in a centralized location to determine problem areas on the transit system.
The study did not recommend installing barriers or increasing law enforcement numbers on the train. Jim Wild, executive director of the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, said leaders can take steps now to improve the system without spending millions of dollars on infrastructure. The resources are already there, added Capt. Steve Boehm of the Washington, D.C. , Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
“You have the resources. It’s just a matter of putting them where they need to be,” Boehm said. “I see Securitas on the platforms but very few interactions do I have on the train itself... For me, it’s visibility.”
Metro contracts with private security company Securitas to provide armed security officers on MetroLink. Capt. Scott Melies, MetroLink unit commander for St. Louis County, has said the contract with Securitas needs improvement. That’s an assessment Stuart, the study’s supervisor, agrees with.
“We were asked to write a whole new recommendation for that contract and a lot of that has to do with training them (security officers) in engagement and in moving them around the system, on and off the trains, giving them tools, some actual activities to do,” Stuart said. “Right now they’re told to stand on that platform and watch. How do you do that for eight hours and stay anywhere near engaged?”
Spending more money isn’t necessary at the moment, Stuart said. Rather, a redeploying security personnel and reorganizing relationships between law enforcement, politicians and agencies could solve a lot of Metro’s problems.
“There’s a lot of people trying to do the right thing but they’re not coordinating,” Stuart said. “There are lot of individual efforts that if you brought them together, they would be stronger.”
Hinz, the Sacramento transit security head, said the security model that works for her city is a joint contract police department between the three agencies primarily responsible for patrolling MetroLink — St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and the St. Louis County Police Department.
“You get the confidence, the training, the expertise, the experience, and the whole depth of each police agency when you do that,” Hinz said. “I would completely turn it upside down here.”
But sworn police officers are the most expensive form of security to place on a transit system, Hinz said. If private security personnel were more visible and active, it could reduce the need for sworn officers, said Harry Saporta, executive director of safety and security for Portland’s transit district.
“If your end goal is to provide presence on the system, it’s much more cost-effective to have more security personnel,” Saporta said.
Citing a Belleville News-Democrat investigation, Stuart said crime rates on MetroLink aren’t the major problem. If customer experience and service improved, the public’s perception of the light rail would improve, too.
The Belleville News-Democrat 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. 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.
“(Crime) is not that bad. What is bad is the disorderly conduct stuff, the disregarding the rules—the more basic rules, the listening to loud music—the things that make it a pleasure to ride,” Stuart said.
Stuart and the panelists also wagged their fingers at area leaders for airing out their complaints with one another in public. In Washington D.C., more than 100 law enforcement agencies work together to police the light rail system there, according to Boehm of the transit authority there.
“As far as disagreements among agencies, yes, we have them. But at the end of the day, we’re police. We’re professional. We get the job done and we have our talks behind the scenes,” Boehm said. “As far as the public knows, we’re all on the same sheet of music.”
Citizens for Modern Transit will accept public comment through Nov. 30 on an online survey at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/MetroSecuritySTL.