Septa Seeks New Police Chief Search Takes Place In A Time Of Tumult

Posted: November 24, 1990

The last 18 months have been a tumultuous period for SEPTA police, one marked by morale problems, a high turnover rate, subway staffing glitches, the rise and fall of subway crime and an ugly beating incident that resulted in the arrests of three transit officers.

Now, SEPTA is looking for a new top cop.

Howard F. Patton, SEPTA police chief since 1986, resigned from the force in September after his bosses sought changes in his department, according to one high-placed source.

While Bob Robinson, a SEPTA veteran of at least a decade, serves as acting chief, a three-person panel headed by general manager Louis J. Gambaccini has been interviewing candidates to take Patton's place.

The new chief will preside over a 218-person force that over the last 18 months has quadrupled the number of SEPTA officers patrolling the subway system at night. Training has also been changed, in part to stop officers from leaving SEPTA for the Philadelphia Police Department.

SEPTA officials maintain these are positive steps.

The new chief will also inherit some problems, such as how to handle fallout from the arrests earlier this week of a SEPTA police officer and two former colleagues on charges of beating a 25-year-old restaurant cook last spring in Suburban Station.

The man was hit in the head and face, thrown to the ground, beaten with a blackjack, kicked, punched with handcuffs and struck in the teeth with a nightstick, according to the District Attorney's Office.

Suspended without pay under threat of termination, one officer resigned. Another was terminated after a SEPTA hearing. A third was demoted and has been assigned to administrative duties pending the outcome of court action.

The incident has raised questions about the way SEPTA trains its officers, and what they are allowed to do.

Like Philadelphia police, SEPTA transit officers can carry guns or blackjacks. SEPTA's officers follow the same guidelines as Philadelphia police in using deadly force, SEPTA officials said. Philadelphia's directive states that officers are justified in using deadly force as a last resort to prevent a person fleeing from arrest when that person has a deadly weapon "which they have used or indicate they are about to use" or is fleeing from a forcible felony. The blackjacks also can be used for self-defense.

Until earlier this year, SEPTA's officers were trained at the Philadelphia Police Academy, where city police are trained, too.

That has changed.

SEPTA is now sending its police recruits to Temple University's program. Temple provides the training required under state law, but its program is less comprehensive than the one offered at the Police Academy. For example, Temple provides fewer hours of coursework in human relations and urban policing and fewer hours of firearms training.

Transit officials say the switch does not affect the quality of the training SEPTA officers receive.

It was made, according to deputy general manager Howard H. Roberts Jr.,

because there was insufficient room for SEPTA police officers at the Police Academy, and because officers were leaving SEPTA at significant rates. They were going to the Philadelphia Police Department, where pay and benefits were better. Another factor in the exodus, some said, was that the 6,300-member Philadelphia force has more room for promotion and special assignments.

"We had a tremendous problem," Roberts said, adding that the annual turnover rate was about 30 percent.

According to Philadelphia police officials, the city's force picked up 15 people from the SEPTA police in 1989, including Officer Willie L. Williams Jr., son of Police Commissioner Willie L. Williams.

The Philadelphia Police Department has picked up an additional 10 SEPTA officers so far this year.

Transit officials expect that to stop. They have increased salaries to about $27,000 for a rookie officer. That still lags behind the Philadelphia Police Department, where the starting pay is $28,333. But the gap is much narrower than it had been.

The switch to Temple ensures that SEPTA officers will no longer be able to transfer to the Philadelphia force without completing an additional 20 weeks of training. In the past, recruits with SEPTA experience became Philadelphia officers after a few weeks of refresher courses, including several days learning the city's policies and directives.

Some officers regret the switch.

"I think we made out better at the Police Academy because of the environment," Vernon Cottman, president of Local 191 of the International Brotherhood of Transit Police, said yesterday. "It's really a police environment instead of a scholastic environment."

The change in training is not believed to be a factor in the beating incident, since the three men arrested were trained at the Police Academy.

Nevertheless, Roberts said, the incident was one factor leading to SEPTA's development of an annual training program for officers who get on the force. Transit police complained that they were not always prepared for the nitty- gritty of everyday situations, he said.

Among other things, the new course will offer transit officers practice deciding in hypothetical situations when to use their weapons, Roberts said.

Another change at SEPTA occurred two weeks ago, when the transit authority switched to a new, zone system of police staffing.

Transit police used to be spread out over the system, and their deployment was not coordinated with their counterparts in the city police department.

"One night, we had a bet as to how many SEPTA police officers there were in the system," Roberts said.

"It turned out to be less than 10," he said.

"Eight people in 65 stations at night. That's not very good."

Then, early this year, came a crime wave, and more officers were dispatched to the subway system.

Under the new system, a unit composed of seven to eight officers and a sergeant is responsible for patrolling one zone. Each zone contains seven stations.

The Philadelphia police are responsible for patrolling Broad Street stations north of the City Hall concourse, while SEPTA police are supposed to cover the entire Market-Frankford subway-elevated line and the Broad Street stations south of City Hall.

Assistant general manager Robert T. Wooten said yesterday that the change puts between 40 and 50 SEPTA officers on the subway system at night.

Even before this change, SEPTA police and their Philadelphia counterparts claimed a success: The crime rate on the subway system and transit concourses has dropped 49 percent since last year. Officials attribute that to the increased police presence that came after a series of widely publicized crimes early this year.

Some Philadelphia police said they were still worried that SEPTA was stretched too thin to keep a watchful eye over its massive network, which extends into five counties. But they also said that SEPTA's new zone coverage showed signs of improving matters, especially along the Market-Frankford and Broad Street lines.

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