News Column

St. Louis police boosting security in Forest Park on eve of busy season

May 3, 2014

By Joel Currier, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

May 03--ST. LOUIS -- Duane Buschow took a cross-country road trip here this week from Colorado to tour the Mound City for the first time.

He spent Thursday afternoon at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park to learn about the founding of St. Louis, Prohibition and the 1904 World's Fair.

But when he returned to his Honda Pilot parked near the Dwight Davis Tennis Center, he found the front passenger window shattered by a would-be thief.

"That's the way it is," said a disappointed Buschow, 69, who lives near Steamboat Springs, Colo., as he inspected his SUV afterward. "It could be worse."

Neither the laptop on Buschow's front seat nor the GPS device attached to the windshield was taken because St. Louis police Sgt. John Vogt interrupted the break-in while taking a Post-Dispatch reporter for a ridealong through the park. The burglar and his getaway driver sped off. Vogt said the Colorado plates, car-top carrier and electronics visible through the windshield made Buschow's Pilot an alluring target.

The break-in was just one crime among many that plague Forest Park visitors and perplex police.

As St. Louis blossoms, police are promising tighter security and beefed-up patrols in city parks this year. Forest Park, in particular, is getting special attention as millions flock to the park to visit the museums and the zoo and attend concerts and festivals. With St. Louis celebrating its 250th birthday, the Shakespeare festival in the park resuming and the 34th annual Fair St. Louis moving to the park this July, officials are expecting a deluge of pedestrian and vehicle traffic.

A bigger police presence in the park has been fueled by the city's regaining control of the department from the state last year and the redistricting that started in January, police say. The department reduced its districts to six from nine and evened out the number of officers per district. When that started, Forest Park became part of the department's Second District instead of being under the traffic division. The move afforded beat officers assigned exclusively to the park.

Before redistricting, police say, two traffic cops would patrol the 1,300-acre park but would sometimes be called outside of its boundaries to help with traffic control.

Starting May 12, police say Forest Park will have up to five officers and three armed park rangers around the clock. Officers will patrol the park in marked squad cars most of the time, but some will use bicycles, all-terrain vehicles and horses between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. A police dog also will be on call.

"It's obviously a playground for everybody," said Vogt, who is in his 25th year with the department and is coordinating the new security efforts at the park. "The visibility will be more than double what it was last year. My goal this summer is that people will feel comfortable here."

Vogt said he has also been coordinating security strategies for the 73 security guards at the art museum, zoo, science center and history museum. Also, the department's mounted patrol, which has four horses, reopened in the park last fall after lead paint contamination in 2009 forced a move to a temporary stable in west St. Louis County.

City park rangers are receiving training through the St. Louis Police Academy and will become civilian police department employees starting in July, Vogt said. Museum and zoo workers are being given training that includes strategies for spotting and responding to suspicious activity throughout the park.

Forest Park Forever, the nonprofit organization charged with maintenance and restoration of the park, is working with the police and the parks department to identify needed improvements to signs and lighting. The city has already painted some curbs bright yellow to designate no-parking zones and improve visibility at intersections when streets are jammed with cars in the summer. Some signs throughout the park are expected to be removed or replaced in coming months.

City crime statistics show crime in the park trending downward since 2012. Last year, overall crime in the park dropped by 11 percent compared to a year earlier, according to city police statistics.

Through April of this year, thieves have hit 21 vehicles in the park, compared to 48 break-ins over the same period last year, police say.

But while they have become less frequent, car break-ins remain a persistent problem. In the past four years, three out of four thefts reported in the park were from cars.

Last year, in addition to multiple car break-ins, robberies and a fatal shooting made for unsettling headlines.

In September, an off-duty St. Charles County deputy who said he was jogging with a woman at night fatally shot one of three would-be robbers and wounded two others near the Grand Basin. Two men were charged with murder in that incident.

Lindsey Burg, 28, of St. Peters, who brought a 3-year-old beagle, Blossom, to the park Thursday for a photo shoot, said she usually feels safe in Forest Park but avoids the park at night.

"The car break-ins bug me the most," she said. "Because you hear about them all the time."

Mike Townsend, 63, a retired elementary school teacher from St. Louis, said he feels safer wiping bird poop off his car in the park than on his own street.

"Just the presence of an authority figure makes you feel safe even if they're not around 24-7," he said while spritzing down his red Buick.

Police hope the bigger force continues the drop in car break-ins and further reduces overall crime in Forest Park.

Buschow, the park visitor whose SUV was targeted by thieves Thursday, said he left St. Louis for Hannibal, Mo., on Friday angry about the break-in attempt but harboring no ill feelings toward St. Louis.

"I guess I asked for it by leaving the stuff in there," he said.

Joel Currier is a police and crime reporter for STLtoday.com and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter here: @joelcurrier

___

(c)2014 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Visit the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at www.stltoday.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services


For more stories covering arts and entertainment, please see HispanicBusiness' Arts & Entertainment Channel



Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Story Tools






HispanicBusiness.com Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters