Officials confirm Transit police sworn to enforce city ordinances, though they’re not held to same standards as Philly police.
They rarely say it aloud, but the three activists I talked to today all view Transit police as a high priced security team and a gang of wannabees who couldn’t cut it in the big leagues.
One of the activists, Mr. Greg Brinkley, a former correctional officer, said he doesn’t even break a sweat when pulled over or stopped by a Transit police officer.
Mr. Brinkley, and his comrades, Mr. Asa Khalif and Mr. Edward Lloyd, all of whom were outside of SEPTA’s HQ last Friday to respond to a video of an officer grabbing a 20 year-old man accused of fare evasion by the neck while he held a child, were united in their dismissal of what they perceived to be second-tier law enforcement until they learned from Techbook Online that SEPTA’s cops and Philadelphia police officers have overlapping jurisdictions; train together; and have roughly equal powers in terms of making arrest and enforcing city ordinances .
“I didn’t know that,” replied Mr. Lloyd to me during a conference call.
“Who gave SEPTA all the authority without any of the accountability?” questioned Mr. Brinkley, who said he’s seen Transit police officers stopping people on the streets, nowhere near a SEPTA stop, and even witnessed Transit police officers patrolling a construction site.
According to Ms. Jerri Williams, Director of Media Relations, SEPTA, Transit police officers are “sworn under the city code to enforce city ordinances.”
Which means the behavior Mr. Brinkley describes, such as writing tickets for blown headlights, stopping-and-frisking individuals who seem suspicious, and standing guard at sites not typically associated with SEPTA, is legal, just not widely known.
“Transit police officers and Philadelphia police officers have overlapping jurisdictions,” said Mr. Kelvyn Anderson, Executive Director, Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission. “Any cop trained under Act 48, a state law, is a cop and has arrest power and works under the same criminal statues,” added Mr. Anderson, who noted that though Philly and Transit police work collaboratively at times, his agency has no access, jurisdiction or clout within the ranks at SEPTA.
And Ms. Williams confirmed with Techbook Online exclusively that SEPTA does not have a civilian oversight agency, but they’re considering using civilians to review a body camera roll-out and the footage it’ll produce.
“To whom much is given, much is required,” remarked Mr. Khalif, who told me he always assumed the Philadelphia Police Department trumped SEPTA, but since that isn’t the case, “SEPTA need more eyes on their a**es.”
Mr. Anderson, who called the viral video first published last Thursday by The Spirit “unfortunate,” said given that Transit police cover a huge urban area, it would make sense to have civilian oversight.
Mr. Anderson made it clear that his statement wasn’t an indication that he’s interested in working with SEPTA to improve accountability, as he’s focused on “reforming the Philadelphia Police Department.”
But Mr. Anderson did point to a precedent for civilian oversight in Transit policing. BART, after the murder of Mr. Oscar Grant at Fruitvale Station, hired an independent auditor who, in addition to improving transparency and accountability, was instrumental in formulating their body camera policies.
Beyond SEPTA not having a civilian oversight component attached to their on-the-ground policing, what really seems to be un-democratic is the general acceptance among officials that SEPTA’s police force maintains great authority with minimal accountability.
“SEPTA is an entity unto itself; it has its own governing structure,” said Mr. Anderson.
Ms. Williams confirmed the agency’s autonomy: “We have our own command center.”
Until 1982, the transit system was policed by the Philadelphia Police Department, which is currently implementing major reforms as per a report from the Department of Justice and recommendations offered by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
Mr. Anderson said all officers are trained the same, which lead me to ask: “Does that mean Transit police will be expected to undergo the additional training recommended for Philly Police in the reports?”
Mr. Anderson, to my surprise, said no.
Ms. Williams also confirmed that they’re not required to do anything more than what Chief Thomas J. Nestel III finds appropriate.
“SEPTA’s responsibility is to maintain our transit services and ensure police enforce the fare structure,” said Ms. Williams, who informed me that the memo excusing fare evasion reported on by the Metro (Philly) was “not an external memo,” and was only for “trolley and bus operators, as a high number of “operator assaults began with a fare dispute.”
Ms. Williams added:
“We take fare evasion seriously.”
According to the viral video which has been picked up by several national media outlets, SEPTA indeed takes fare collection very seriously, so much so that a 16 year veteran of the force would put a child in danger because he feared whatever discipline would await him if word was released that he let a kid slide on $2.25.
“Do we need to surround someone and get physical with them over $2.25?” questioned Mr. Anderson, rhetorically.
Regarding the now infamous incident involving Officer William Crawford and Mr. Ellis Smith, Ms. Williams had no comment, except to note that an Internal Affairs investigation is underway. When asked if the report and ruling will be made public, Ms. Williams said SEPTA “may share the outcome.”
Despite SEPTA operating on a majority of public dollars (40% of operating income comes from revenue, and the remaining comes from the State), how they communicate what takes place within its organization, regarding policing, is anything but public.
Ms. Williams confirmed that SEPTA isn’t required to publish information regarding officer-involved shootings, stops, frisks or cases of excessive force to their website.
Mr. Khalif, who said SEPTA operates in a “secret layer,” was visibly frustrated by the news of their far-reaching authority.
Mr. Khalif, referring to the arrest of Mr. Smith, said he wants the arresting officer on desk duty, and the other officers involved disciplined, too.
“They endangered an innocent child,” he exclaimed.
Mr. Khalif said by July 6th, if the community’s demands aren’t met, than SEPTA will experience massive traffic jams across the city due to protests.
“We’re about to ride on their a**es,” he stated.
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