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Soon a University City police officer approaches DeBaun's group and tells them to move on. "You've got to keep walking," warns the officer. "No standing or sitting."
On the other side of Delmar Boulevard, University City residents Nicolette Rich, fifteen, and her fourteen-year-old sister, Ariana, wonder where everyone is. They say they weren't in the Loop last weekend to witness the fights, though they're not entirely surprised by the violence. The Loop, they say, is an occasional staging ground for fisticuffs between their classmates and rivals at Normandy High School.
More pressing to the Rich sisters is what they'll do if the police continue their crackdown on the teenagers on the Loop.
"Where else are we going to go?" asks Nicolette. "There aren't a lot of places where we can hang out."
One need not look farther than the nearest computer to keep tabs on crime and shoplifting at the Galleria. Since 2006 the Richmond Heights police department has kept online records of nearly every arrest made at the mall.
A scan of these police reports reveals that as many as half of the shoplifting and disorderly conduct arrests made at the mall these days involves teenagers. And although most of the crime summaries provide little more than the name of the victim and age of the offender, a few go into greater detail.
In a summary from July 8, for example, Richmond Heights police reported arresting three adult males — ages 23, 29 and 31 — implicated in a string of thefts earlier this summer. According to Macy's loss-prevention officers, the men would enter the department store, conceal merchandise under their clothes and then hightail it across the Galleria parking lot to the MetroLink station. By the time Macy's officers realized what had been stolen, the men were already on a train out of town.
Alerted last month that the men were again at the mall, Richmond Heights police set up command west of Brentwood Boulevard near the MetroLink stop. Sure enough, two of the three individuals soon came running out of Macy's in the direction of the train station. Police arrested them and found several hundred dollars worth of stolen goods tucked under their clothes. Background checks revealed both men had previously been charged with theft and drug possession.
Metro spokeswoman Dianne Williams calls the July 8 incident an exception to the rule. "We bring increased traffic to the Galleria," says Williams. "Now if part of that is a criminal element, then we need to do something about that. But people intent on bad behavior will get there some way."
In 2007 MetroLink boasted 22 million boardings — up five million from 2006. And while ridership continues to increase owing to high gas prices and Highway 40 construction, Metro's reputation remains dogged from the loss last year of an $81 million lawsuit against the construction managers on the Cross County MetroLink expansion.
The failed suit cost Metro $27 million in legal fees and led to the firing of the agency's then-president Larry Salci. In February, Metro pulled a half-cent tax hike off the St. Louis County ballot for fear that angry voters would reject the measure. The initiative is slated to reappear on the ballot November 4. Without the additional public funds, Metro claims it will face a $45 million deficit by 2010.
With so much riding on the line, the agency doesn't want voters worrying about safety.
"Just as we don't blame the automobile industry if someone commits a crime with a car, you need to be careful about blaming the mode of transportation for some of these recent isolated incidents," says Dianne Williams.
The Metro spokeswoman grows particularly testy when presented with allegations that MetroLink has led to increased crime and juvenile arrests at the Galleria. "Last time I checked, you didn't have to be sixteen to get a ride to the mall with your friends," says Williams, who contends that most teenagers arrive at the mall by car — not MetroLink or the transit agency's bus service.
Arrests at the Galleria hit record levels in the late 1990s when several department stores enacted "zero tolerance" policies that prosecuted offenders, even for the pettiest of crimes.
Since then arrests at the Galleria have declined from a high of 902 in 1998 to a low of 183 in 2005. In 2007, the first full year the Shrewsbury line was in operation, the number of arrests jumped to 396. This year, Richmond Heights police are on pace to arrest 690 people at the mall.
Sergeant Jim Bowie, who patrols the Galleria full-time with three other Richmond Heights police officers, has no explanation for this latest crime surge. "Who knows?" says Bowie. "Perhaps it's the downturn in the economy. Or maybe it's the need for teens to feel like they have to wear the latest fashions."
Bowie says his officers rarely, if ever, ask suspects how they arrived at the Galleria. "It's just not something we do. There's no check box for it on the booking sheets," he says. "Besides, it could be that they tell us they took MetroLink when in reality they arrived in a stolen car."
Richmond Heights prosecutor Stephen O'Brien acknowledges that Galleria-related incidents now consume half his caseload — and that doesn't include charges against juveniles, which are handled through the St. Louis County Family Court. O'Brien declines to speculate as to why crimes are on the increase and says it's "half-assed reasoning" to blame the uptick on MetroLink.
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