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Local politician fears MetroLink could become a ‘ghost train’

By: Jim Merkel

A St. Louis County Police officer covering the security camera at the North Hanley MetroLink station.

Representing a district far from the nearest MetroLink stop, Councilmember Mark Harder [District 7] easily could put the security woes of the area’s light rail system at the bottom of his “to do” box. But the West County Republican thinks a lot about it, both for the sake of constituents who drive to the Shrewsbury or Brentwood MetroLink stops and take a train to a ball game and for the future of the entire system.

“Metro and Bi-State and the governments and the police, we have to get this right if we’re going to survive. Or else it will be a ghost train,” Harder said.

Harder spoke after questions about alleged problems with St. Louis County’s patrols of MetroLink stops. Reports that some St. Louis County police officers aren’t doing their jobs on the light rail lines have led the County Council to call for an independent investigation of those allegations.

“We’re going to be looking for someone that can do an investigation, whether it’s the FBI or the Highway Patrol or some outside [investigator],” Harder said. “It’s also good that County Police Chief Jon Belmar plans to do an internal investigation so that both sides can be compared.”

Meanwhile, the county is working out the details of a security agreement with Bi-State. For Harder’s constituents, the primary need is reassurance that MetroLink is safe.

“The big thing will be that it is safe from the standpoint that arrests are being made, and that problems, issues, on MetroLink are going to be cleared up,” he said. But he predicted, “It’s not going to happen overnight. These things have been festering for a long time.”

People started asking about security on the light rail system following a series of highly-publicized violent incidents on MetroLink trains. The outcry got louder after St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Tony Messenger wrote about allegations that county police weren’t doing enough.

West Newsmagazine obtained the same internal documents Messenger used in his reporting through a state Sunshine Law request. Among the biggest findings were several reports that police had covered security cameras at the police substation at the North Hanley MetroLink station. In more than one case, a video showed police covering the cameras.

Bi-State documents also purported that up to seven officers were in the security office at the Clayton station at one time, rather than patrolling the line.

On a complaint form, one woman said she saw a Metro security guard shoo away a couple of drug dealers. They said they’d be back when he was gone.

“In 15-plus years of riding Metro transit, I have never, not once, seen a [city police] officer on a train, platform or bus. Ever. Maybe four times a year, I will see a county officer ride a stop or two,” the woman said.

Richard Zott, Bi-State’s chief of public safety, took up concerns about safety in 2015 in a five-page letter to Belmar and then-St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson. Zott complained that contracted police officers weren’t riding trains 80 percent of the time, as they were required to do.

“I continue to believe that if the officers were actually on the vehicles, that the incidents of crime would be further reduced, and that our combined response times to customers or each other would be improved.”

In an email to Zott, one MetroLink dispatcher complained, “Although St. Louis County’s claim to increasing officers was for visibility, it has become quite obvious that their motive was to increase arrest stats and not visibility.”

The dispatcher claimed that “seldom are they in their assigned area to respond, and can be anywhere except where they are supposed to be.”

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