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2 Metro East reporters take close look at perceptions, realities surrounding transit safety concerns

A new Belleville News-Democrat investigation challenges common perceptions about how safe MetroLink is.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Early Tuesday morning, the Belleville News-Democrat published an in-depth investigation into just how safe the St. Louis region’s MetroLink light-rail system is, ultimately concluding that it “isn’t as dangerous as you think” and that crime rates have declined.

Hours later, a man was shot and killed at the South Grand Boulevard Metro station during an argument between two other people. He was an innocent bystander waiting for a bus.

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh led an on-air discussion prompted by this juxtaposition.

Joining him for the Behind the Headlines conversation were Belleville News-Democrat reporters Joe Bustos and Kelsey Landis, who have been following this topic closely for months – and were surprised by some of what they discovered.

“We started this story a little more than a year ago thinking that we were going to find that crime on MetroLink was sky high,” Landis said. “That was because our investigation began after a wave of violent crime in the Metro East and also in the St. Louis area on MetroLink. That’s why we decided, ‘Let’s look at this. No one has really ever done, that we know of, an in-depth look at the crime rates on MetroLink.’”

Reporters Kelsey Landis (at left) and Joe Bustos spent more than a year sifting through reports from 15 different police departments in the region.
Credit Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
Reporters Kelsey Landis (at left) and Joe Bustos spent more than a year sifting through reports from 15 different police departments in the region.

She and Bustos proceeded to file multiple Freedom of Information Act and Sunshine Law requests to the 15 police departments along the light-rail alignment to track how much crime there is compared to ridership.

“Each crime on MetroLink that hurts somebody or affects somebody is a tragedy – we don’t diminish that at all – but we found that crime on MetroLink is actually quite low when you compare it to ridership,” Landis said.

Bustos noted that their investigation looked at both violent crimes and “less serious” crimes, finding that there were nearly equivalent numbers of the latter occurring along the transit system in 2016 and 2017 (634 and 632, respectively). As for violent crimes, less than one occurred per 100,000 boardings in 2016 – and 1.4 in 2017.

They also found that the St. Louis County Police Department has increased its patrols of MetroLink, with just 700 patrols reported in 2016 in contrast to the nearly 16,000 patrols the department reported in 2017.

“A lot of the police that we talked to were ready to give us this information because they say, ‘We’ve done what people wanted – we’ve drastically increased our patrols at MetroLink stations, on the trains,’” Landis said. “But the ridership is still down. We’ve seen a decrease in ridership of about 2 million riders over the past two years. That might have to do with the fear of riding MetroLink, about security issues. But also, Metro points out that there’s fewer downtown events, and ridership is down [in] transit systems across the country.”

When Marsh asked whether perceptions of safety – or a lack thereof – when it comes to Metro Transit are fair, Bustos said he thinks that some of what drives such perceptions is “a fear of the unknown.”

“Kelsey and I both went to [school] in the Chicago area, so we were used to public transportation … there’s a culture of public transportation [in Chicago],” Bustos said, noting that MetroLink didn’t start operating in the St. Louis region until relatively recently – 1993.

Several listeners called in to the show, offering further comments and questions for the guests. Listen to the full discussion:

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Caitlin Lally give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.