SEPTA police chief: Crime down, arrests of fare jumpers up

SEPTA's Silverliner V railcar. ( Juliette Lynch / Photographer ).
SEPTA's Silverliner V railcar. ( Juliette Lynch / Photographer ).
Posted: May 07, 2014

After rising for a decade, violent and property crimes dropped on SEPTA subway and elevated lines last year, as fare-evasion arrests skyrocketed.

SEPTA Police Chief Thomas J. Nestel III credited a change in police tactics: more officers in the subways, a crackdown on minor crimes, and a focus on fare jumpers.

In 2013, there were 464 reported violent and property crimes on the Broad Street subway and the Market-Frankford elevated/subway line, down 14 percent from 541 in 2012. Violent and property crimes include murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, theft, and arson.

Of the 464 reported crimes, 307, or 66 percent, were cellphone thefts, Nestel said.

There were no murders or rapes, 358 thefts, 89 robberies, 10 aggravated assaults, six burglaries, and one stolen vehicle reported.

Nestel said theft of phones increased greatly after SEPTA and AT&T began providing access to cellphone service in the Broad Street subway in 2009, prompting more riders to use their phones and make them visible to thieves.

Arrests for nonviolent "quality of life" violations such as smoking, harassment, and disorderly conduct jumped to 3,815 in 2013, up 147 percent from 1,543 in 2012.

Arrests for fare evasion increased to 3,089 in 2013 from 571 in 2012, a jump of 441 percent.

Tony DeSantis, president of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers, praised SEPTA's actions.

"It sounds to me like they're doing the right things," he said. "If you crack down on the quality-of-life issues, it does translate into other crimes. People get the message that things aren't tolerated."

DeSantis compared the SEPTA moves to the "broken-window" policy championed two decades ago by William Bratton as New York City transit police chief and then police commissioner: Crack down on small crimes to prevent bigger ones.

Nestel, who became chief in August 2012, said he added police in afternoon and evening hours and at crime "hot spots" such as the Frankford Transportation Center, City Hall Concourse, and Cecil B. Moore/Temple University Station, and focused police attention on fare evaders and quality-of-life violations.

The addition of more video cameras on trains and in stations has also aided police in their crackdown, with 17,600 cameras in use.

"The theory is that if you focus on the minor issues, you can prevent major issues," said Nestel, a former Philadelphia police officer who has a master's degree in criminology. "The people jumping the turnstile are not going to visit Grandma or going to the library downtown to study."

And, he said, the evident focus on minor crimes assures subway riders that laws are being enforced and increases public confidence in the safety of the subways.

"Violent crime is a rarity. . . . It happens, but rarely," Nestel said. "What we have are phone snatchers."

And fare evaders, whom Nestel refers to by evasion style: hurdlers, crawlers, and shimmiers.

In pursuit of those fare evaders, SEPTA dispatchers now transmit surveillance photos of a reported scofflaw to officers at stations to which the suspected evader's train is bound. Then officers board the train, with the photo, to look for the person.

"This isn't Sherlock Holmes work," Nestel said. "We know where the train is going."

Fare evaders who are caught face a $300 citation and eviction from the subway.

Courtrooms are now available five days a week for SEPTA prosecutions, up from one per week two years ago, Nestel said.

Uniformed and undercover officers are stationed on platforms and near turnstiles, to catch fare evaders in the act.

SEPTA officials hope the crackdown on fare evaders will deter riders from trying to beat a new "smart-card" system that is supposed to be operational by fall.

"Part of the strategy is to set the tone for the new payment technology," Nestel said. "A lot of employees will be out there as customer-service representatives at the turnstiles to help people.

"The law-abiding public will keep on paying. And the thugs will get introduced to us."


pnussbaum@phillynews.com215-854-4587

@nussbaumpaul

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