Transit Blamed for Suburban St. Louis Crime

1316834466_9ccbd09338.jpgLast week Freakonomics picked up a story from the Riverfront Times that connects an uptick in shoplifting, fighting and other crimes in the St. Louis suburbs to a two-year-old expansion of the city’s MetroLink rail system.

Ask virtually any store manager at the Saint Louis Galleria about shoplifting, and you’ll invariably get two responses: One, it’s out of control; and two, it’s gotten exceedingly worse since August 2006, when MetroLink opened a stop just 500 yards from the high-end shopping center.

In the first six months of this year, Richmond Heights police made 345 arrests at the mall. That’s nearly double the number of arrests made in all of 2005, before MetroLink opened its Shrewsbury line.

More alarming are the numbers of juveniles (kids under the age of
seventeen) arrested at the mall. This year police are on pace to take
276 juveniles into custody for shoplifting and other offenses — a
sevenfold increase over the 39 kids arrested at the Galleria in 2005.

"I know it’s not politically correct, but how else do you explain
it?" comments a frustrated Galleria store manager.

Not everyone is as reactionary. A police officer who regularly patrols the mall, asked to explain the "surge," replied: "Who knows? 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."

Of course it could also be that improved transit brings more people in general, or that authorities are more likely to target those who appear out of place for engaging in activities that might otherwise go overlooked. But after establishing its "city problems invade the ‘burbs" theme, the story avoids such analysis, relying instead on rote "he said she said" coverage. To wit:

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.

"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
[Metro spokeswoman] Dianne Williams.

Photo of St. Louis Galleria: merfam/Flickr

  • I love how he thinks the public transportation is the problem NOT the giant mob of teens with nothing to do. (Most likely because they have no sports teams or drama clubs at their high school after school…) No! The trains caused this. Like the kids wouldn’t be bored and causing trouble someplace else, if they didn’t get on the train. The real issue is that middle class and rich people have to deal with bored poor teens. Cry me a river.

    I also love how it’s called an “increase in crime” when I know that these teens (who while I doubt they are perfect, but no teen is “perfect”) are probably getting harassed by the mall staff and rent-a-cops, racially profiled followed etc. So, yeah, if you do that you end up with more arrests. And “more crime.” Big shock.

    So, the idea is … I guess… let’s not build any public transportation and just keep the poor people isolated.

  • That must be a bloody good train service if it’s frequent and/or reliable enough to use as a getaway vehicle…

    If Macy’s security is not quick enough to catch thieves who have to wait for a train, they must be losing an absolute fortune to thieves with cars. Maybe they should do away with the car park, and plant trees instead? This would have the added benefit of slowing down the “train criminals” who currently have a nice easy jog across the car-park to their waiting getaway train.

  • Bob

    I’ve heard this kind of argument before. Even if it is true that the transit system is “importing crime” to the area, maybe that’s good. Maybe it is good that people aren’t isolated from each other, and people in “crime free” areas are made to understand that we are all one society.

  • Streetsman

    Any mention of how much extra BUSINESS has been generated by the addition of the train station?

  • We’re just talking about property crimes here right? Petty shoplifting is the major concern of the day and not the daily carnage on the roads? People need to get their eyes on the ball. How many lives does mass transit save everyday? Dozens I bet.

  • I am stunned that the gigantic analytical brains of Freakonomics passed this story along without scratching at the numbers (not their game?), or even wondering exactly what an increase in arrests indicates. Aren’t there any numbers on shoplifting convictions, and documented losses? Aw, shucks, let’s just quote the parts we like and close with a slippery jab at Our New Urban President.

    “If the incoming President can find the money, there will surely be renewed efforts to expand public transit in a lot of cities.

    There are obvious gains: environmental, less road congestion, fewer accidents, etc. But if St. Louis’s experience is at all indicative, there might also be at least one unintended consequence worth thinking about.”

    etc! You know, those silly accidents and such. Who cares about traffic deaths when mall stores might be losing money (which we can’t be bothered to find evidence of), and scariest of all, raggedy youths are at fisticuffs!

    YES let us assume it is “at all indicative” (and conveniently validates our most cherished prejudices because that is what sloppy social/science reporting is all about) and head on to “thinking” about this completely speculative “consequence.” And let’s especially ignore the Richmond Heights prosecutor who “says it’s ‘half-assed reasoning’ to blame the uptick on MetroLink,” because that is not the skeptical conclusion we are after, but instead the one that is baselessly Skeptical of Socialist Transportation.

    There’s more lazy conventional hooey about transportation in the archives:
    Why are these stupid charity people making me stop on my favorite “high-speed” highway that is “hill and a bit curvy”, which I like to speed on?
    http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/10/28/with-road-safety-like-this-who-needs-drunk-drivers/

    And linked by Streetsblog back in August:
    Why do these stupid pedestrians keep throwing their pathetic bodies in front of wonderful high-speed cars, is it because THE MOON makes them LOONY?
    http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/08/27/freak-shots-blame-it-on-the-moon/

  • Omri Schwarz

    Keep in mind that the people in St. Louis and the west suburbs have no link (state, county, or municipal) with East St. Louis, so even if they wanted to do something about the problems there, there isn’t much they could do, and so they have some cause to be resentful of being the punching bag for those youths.

  • Thread drift: as of when I had to use it last year, the website for public transit in St. Louis is one of the worst I’ve ever had to deal with.

  • rex

    I have never heard of a mall shop owner complaining about too many people at the mall. Hilarious.

    Complaining that too many of the “wrong type” of people are present is wrong, creepy, classist, and generally un-American. After all, how is Joe-the-Moron going to be cultivated into a consumer if he cannot see all the cool crap that he can buy after Obamahood redistributes the wealth.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    I was hearing people complain about this today as I was doing field survey work regarding one of New Jersey’s new light rail lines. Locals were constantly complaining that it was bring in hoods from the cities that the line connects and that the rail service has caused crime to go up. People are always looking for something easy to blame. No mention of all the factories that closed in the area over the past 10 years due to federal policies that continue to push well paying jobs overseas and local policies that promote sprawl in to virgin farm fields nearby and take all the wealth with it.

    I’ve got news for the lady who was telling me these things today. The area she works isn’t all that great (even though the potential is astronomical) and it wouldn’t surprise me that most of the crime was local due to the reasons I cite above and have nothing to due with an importation of crime by light rail from the cities.

    As for this St Louis case, I propose a simple study. Simply look at the addresses of those who are being arrested for crime at this mall and also see if they own a car. These factors should be enough to prove this case one way or the other.

    Then again bias could always rear its ugly head and the police and security could be only catching those of color while overlooking the “innocent looking” white kids who are probably just as guilty.

  • Preventing crime was also the justification used by the Walden Galleria in Cheektowaga to refuse access to buses. This led to the death of a woman who was trying to get to her new job at the mall.

  • Andy Trafford, my reaction exactly! Imagine trying to use the NYC subway system as a getaway vehicle. I invariably arrive at a station just seconds after the subway has pulled out, leaving me with several-minute wait for the next train. (Hmm, maybe if I were running with something stuffed under my jacket….)

  • Rose Cotton

    Kids steal all the time. Rich kids just as much as poor kids. At least maybe learning the consequences of their actions will help straighten them out.

    I grew up in St. Louis County and had to drive a car everywhere. Getting around is even harder with Highway 44 under construction for the next 2+ years. I always wished that there were an accessible, safer, cheaper alternative to driving. I’m glad that they expanded the Metrolink and I hope they continue to do so.

  • I wonder if they are thanking mass transit for bring shoppers to their stores as well?

  • I tried to post this last night, but it vanished into the ether.

    This phenomenon of mall owners trying to keep transit – and thus Black people – out is not a recent development, and it cost one young woman her life.

  • vnm

    Angus, very interesting links. Thanks.

    Of course, here in New York City we have the opposite dynamic in place. Given the alternative as presented by Buffalo and St. Louis, I think it’s a good problem to have.

    Case in point: Atlas Park Mall in Glendale, Queens, & the Q45 bus extension.

    The mall owner and public officials asked for the bus to be extended to the mall. The MTA proposed an extension to the Q45 bus. The community along the proposed route got into an uproar over “increased traffic” and fought the bus extension, which went through in the end.

    See coverage in the Queens Forum and the Queens Chronicle.

  • True, VNM, but I don’t think that’s the entire story behind the Atlas Park Mall. I live only five miles away from that mall, but I’ve never been there, because to get there I’d have to catch a bus at the Queens Center Mall, so I might as well just shop at the Queens Center Mall.

    Why did the developers choose that location, so far from transit? I think because they thought that they would get enough people coming by car, and that they would be the “right kind of people” (which means something different in Queens than in Buffalo).

    Clearly they didn’t get enough people coming by car, so they decided to reroute the buses. The fact that the mall is partly owned by the family of the MTA Chairman made that a bit easier than it would have been. Maybe that won’t be enough, and they’ll have to reactivate passenger service on the Montauk Branch of the LIRR.

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