On a Friday in late June, video of a man being pushed and arrested by SEPTA police officers while holding his young daughter went viral. Many considered it to be a use of excessive force: The man had been targeted for allegedly evading fare, and the daughter was put at risk. SEPTA police chief Thomas Nestel answered the outcry by expressing regret for the officer’s actions, accepting blame and saying he would make necessary changes to prevent something similar from happening again.
Has Nestel lived up to his word? What’s happening with charges against the man, Ellis Smith, and possible legal action against SEPTA? How’s the 18-month-old girl, Suehaiah, holding up? Three months later, we’re a lot closer to the answers to these questions.
Theft charges for skipping the fare have been dropped against Smith, according to his lawyer, Guy R. Sciolla. Smith now only faces a disorderly conduct charge. Sciolla said the district attorney’s office is prepared to offer a plea deal. They have not decided whether to accept it. If the case goes to trial, Sciolla said a lack of film evidence will be a key to fighting the disorderly conduct charge against Ellis. No video was recorded of Smith going through the turnstile at the Arrott Transportation Center, and Smith told Sciolla he paid the fare.
“Frankly I don’t think Ellis Smith did anything wrong,” Sciolla said. “I think all the charges should have been withdrawn, and I think SEPTA should have been involved in that.
“On that day all of those cameras (at other stations) were operating. All their surveillance film was accessible to anyone who needed it or wanted it. But just this one? It just strikes me as somewhat unusual.”
Nestel maintains that Ellis evaded the fare, saying the SEPTA cashier and other witnesses saw it. He said the surveillance cameras weren’t working at the time because the station was being rehabbed.
“It’ll come out in court,” Nestel said, “but we’re pretty confident that he did evade the fare.”
Sciolla said the incident caused physical and mental distress to Smith and Suehaiah. She has seen child psychologists since then and is still being evaluated, Sciolla said. It could take months or longer, but Smith’s legal team plans on approaching SEPTA for a settlement. Sciolla expects SEPTA to be cooperative.
“I don’t know why there would be a need for a lawsuit,” he said. “The chief of police has already conceded liability.”
The day after the SEPTA police arrested Smith, Nestel said the incident wasn’t about Smith but about his police force, which shouldn’t “endanger the lives of little kids over fare evasions.”
Nestel said the officer who arrested Smith received punishment and new training but was not fired. He said labor relations prevented him from being any more specific.
Three modifications to training methods have either been enacted by SEPTA police in wake of the incident or will happen shortly, Nestel said. These changes focus on proper de-escalation of serious problems and how to handle arrests of adults who have children with them.
“We’re taking a look at the way we deal with the public in critical incidents and trying to resolve it without force in a way that (produces) trust in our ability,” Nestel said. “I think that we’re on the cutting edge of that.”