Cops turn up heat at Olney transit hub in hopes of cooling crime

CHARLES FOX / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER SEPTA transit cop Rodney Salley asks a group of students to stop loitering outside the transportation center.
CHARLES FOX / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER SEPTA transit cop Rodney Salley asks a group of students to stop loitering outside the transportation center.
Posted: October 22, 2013

SEPTA PASSENGERS and police fight the same fight every day at Broad and Olney.

Drug dealers use stores as fronts to peddle product, "hack" cabs trawl for easy fares, students at rival schools gather at the transit hub to settle beefs, and punks loitering in stairwells may be casing passers-by as unsuspecting robbery targets.

"The part that is annoying is coming upstairs from the subway, and the first thing you hear is, 'Hack! Hack!' 'Loosie! Loosie!' and you see people standing around," said Ernest Saxton, 72, a longtime area resident who often uses the Olney Transportation Center at the intersection. "The first thing you want to do is get away from the corner."

Because of these perennial quality-of-life crimes, cops are cracking down at the transit hub - the city's second busiest, serving 35,300 riders on an average weekday. Police are taking aim at low-level crimes like loitering, fare evasion and disorderly conduct in hopes of keeping the transit center clear of anyone who's not there for the bus, subway or another legitimate reason. It's a step, they say, toward tackling the problems of "hacks" - unlicensed cabs - drug dealing and "loosie" cigarette hustling.

The quality-of-life crimes may seem petty, but they can create an atmosphere for more-serious offenses, like assaults and robberies - which is why police are cracking down at Olney, hoping to get thugs off the street before they can commit worse crimes.

A man in a hoodie

On a recent unseasonably warm fall afternoon, droves of people passed through the transportation center - hundreds of school students flocked to bus stops and stood chattering and laughing as still more passengers ascended into the bus loop after leaving Broad Street Line subways below.

Not one of the hundreds of passengers seemed to notice an unassuming young man in a hooded sweatshirt who skirted along the edges of the crowd in no discernible direction. But he stood out to SEPTA Police Chief Tom Nestel.

"He's a cop," Nestel said with a grin. "You'd never know."

The plainclothes officer and his partner, both part of a new team of tactical police officers trained in the summer, were stationed at the hub that afternoon to look out for drug dealers.

Their presence - and that of about 10 additional SEPTA officers who watch over the hub at peak afternoon hours - is part of an initiative by SEPTA police to improve the crime-plagued stop. Officers are deployed there based on data that show crime hot spots, Nestel said, and they're targeting the same quality-of-life crimes that Saxton lamented.

"Every time I come here, it's madness," Nestel said as he eyed the mass of passengers at the frenetic hub. "We have some drug sales in the area and a lot of loitering in stairwells. People [loitering] in stairwells are generally not up to any good. We take care of it before it becomes a robbery or assault."

Police statistics show that Olney, although not as crowded as the Frankford Transportation Center in the lower Northeast, has had a slightly worse problem with certain crimes.

From the beginning of the year through last month, police logged 22 robberies and nine aggravated assaults within about a block of Olney, compared with 21 robberies and six aggravated assaults in the immediate area around Frankford. Drug offenses, however, have been logged almost twice as often at Frankford than at Olney, statistics show. Recorded thefts at Frankford were about a third higher than those at Olney through the end of September.

Watching a decline

Saxton, who has lived a few blocks from the Olney transit center since 1969, said he's seen it go downhill over the years. He said the drug dealers, hacks and "loosie" cigarette sellers took over streets that once belonged to neighborhood folks who would get off the train and shop or dine along the business corridor.

"A lot of times I used to walk from Broad and Olney to home," Saxton said. "I would stop at maybe Smith's [Deli] . . . stop at the store - they used to have a record store. But now when you come up, you don't experience that."

The business corridor now is characterized by numerous take-out restaurants, a check-cashing business, a stop-and-go that sells alcohol and several vacant storefronts. Recently, Councilwomen Cindy Bass and Marian Tasco, along with state Rep. Stephen Kinsey, pledged commitment to improving the business district.

Saxton said the crime and loitering around the hub hasn't made him stop using it - it's his only option - but it has changed how he views the place where he once spent time dining and shopping.

"The only thing it would change is your frame of mind, because if you have something to do and that's the way to go, you're going to go," he said.

A stop for 85 years

Olney Transportation Center was built as the northern end of the Broad Street Line in 1928, SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch said. It served as the subway's terminus until 1956, when Fern Rock was opened near 10th Street and Nedro Avenue.

The transit stop was renovated in the early 1990s, but Saxton said the improvements didn't mean much to people using the stop for legitimate reasons.

"It was improved," he said, "but we have another situation where we have a better-looking building, but the clientele is still the same."

Transportation hubs tend to be high-crime areas for a number of reasons, according to Jerry Ratcliffe, chairman of Temple University's criminal-justice department who has been studying crime patterns at Frankford Transportation Center.

The high volume of people passing through increases the opportunity for anonymity, Ratcliffe said. Also, he said, the hubs are "places where you can effectively legitimately hang out to some degree, because when the police question you, you can say you're waiting for a bus or a train. It increases the capacity for people to loiter with criminal intent but not necessarily draw attention to themselves."

SEPTA police say loitering is one of the main problems at the stop. Last week, an officer at the hub pointed out a handful of men who he said spend day and night hanging there but claim they're waiting to catch a bus when police stop them.

Nestel said his officers are cracking down on loiterers at Olney and elsewhere.

On a recent afternoon, the chief spotted one of his officers stopping a loiterer outside the transit center: "We're making a net," Nestel said, referring to an arrest, as he crossed the street toward a cop cuffing a man wearing a "Ghostbusters" shirt.

"He's been hanging around and bouncing around too long," another officer said, adding that the man declined to identify himself to officers when he was stopped.

"If he provided his identity, he'd get a citation, then be on his way," Nestel said. "But he's refusing to cooperate, so he'll be tied up for the next four to six hours and go to the district to get fingerprinted."

Nestel said targeting people for seemingly minor infractions like loitering and fare-evading often winds up leading to arrests for more-serious crimes.

In the past year, SEPTA police twice have caught fare-evaders illegally carrying guns. Others nabbed trying to hop a train or bus without paying have had outstanding arrest warrants.

"It's amazing," Nestel said. "They would've never been caught if they paid."

A violent district

The Olney transit center also happens to be in the heart of one of the more-violent sections of the city, according to police statistics. The 35th Police District, which surrounds the center, had at least 29 homicides last year.

Philadelphia police soon will join SEPTA in turning up the heat at Broad and Olney. Capt. Joe Fredericksdorf, who commands the 35th District, said new officers will hit the street near the transit center this month to help curb drug dealing, hack cabs and other common crimes.

"A little enforcement goes a long way," Fredericksdorf said. "Offenders disturb the quality of life by intimidating citizens, soliciting goods or money, engaging in thefts or robberies [and] making this corner their hangout."

The hours when students flood the transit center, Nestel said, can be some of the busiest for his officers. Fistfights between students at rival schools have been an issue at the hub and on surrounding blocks in past years, but police say they haven't yet had to break one up this school year.

"This is like Club Olney - and we're making the last call," Nestel joked.

But, he added: "You'll see the folks that we really focus on are the ones who don't have school uniforms. They're the ones who have the most potential for trouble. They're not coming from school. They're not going to school."

Meanwhile, Saxton and other longtime residents are eager to see the area around the transportation center get back to being a place where people can shop or grab a bite to eat. But for now, Saxton still worries that he'll become a victim of crime when he's there.

"My size doesn't make me as vulnerable to crime as some other people," said Saxton, who is 6 feet 2. "But trust me when I tell you: I am concerned."


On Twitter: @morganzalot

Blog: PhillyConfidential.com

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