Credit: Anna Orso / Billy Penn

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SEPTA’s offer this weekend of a reward for information leading to the arrest of suspects who attacked a transit employee was unusual. The Philadelphia regional transit authority doesn’t often put up money in return for help solving crimes.

It’s not clear what criteria SEPTA uses to decide which instances merit a cash reward, and which don’t. A review of past news reports and Billy Penn’s reporting shows the agency offers them sporadically, sometimes funded by other agencies — and sometimes seemingly in conflict with its own policies.

Right now, there’s $1,000 waiting for anyone who can provide credible information about the incident that occurred at City Hall Station on March 15, when a 55-year-old SEPTA track worker attacked by a group of teens sustained a concussion, cuts and bruises.

Video of the attack was released by Transit Workers Union Local 234 last week.

Assaults against SEPTA employees happen with unfortunate regularity. In 2020, the transit authority counted 174 instances of verbal or physical assault against its workforce. The union has long been advocating for SEPTA to turn to the public more often.

“There are cameras everywhere,” said TWU Local 234 president Willie Brown in February. “They could take a picture of an individual and put it at stations, on buses, and offer a reward if you could identify the individual.”

The union has suggested transit officials start a “Most Wanted List” using camera footage. “This is the kind of stuff you do when you actually want to stop something,” said Brown.

Transit Police Chief Thomas Nestel III, who is in charge of security across the transportation system, is facing major backlash. SEPTA police union voted no confidence in their chief last week, and TWU Local 234 called on him to resign.

On issuing rewards for help solving crimes, Nestel told Billy Penn earlier this month that doing it too regularly could make riders “desensitized.”

“Rewards are offered for incidents involving employees, customers or anyone else who is a victim of a serious crime on the system,” said SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch. “The decision on whether to ask for the public’s help to identify suspects and offer a reward is made on a case-by-case basis.”

‘I just put a $20,000 bounty on your head’

The agency’s current rewards policy went into effect in March 2018, but it’s been a practice for decades.

In 1986, SEPTA offered a $10,000 reward for a man who repeatedly raped a Route 79 trolley operator at gunpoint, according to an Inquirer report.

Nationally, about 15% to 20% of rewards offerings end up actually being paid out to a tipster. Rewards as a means of obtaining information in criminal investigations were popularized in the 1950s, when the FBI first released its “Ten Most Wanted” list. They’re a useful incentive, experts say, because revealing information to the police can put someone in danger.

Since their first insurgence in the middle of the 20th century, rewards have been regularly offered by Philly organizations, including the Philadelphia Police Department, the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police and other private groups, like the Citizens Crime Commission.

Former Mayor Michael Nutter first authorized the city government in 2012 to start offering rewards up to $20,000 for homicide, and $500 for illegally possessing a firearm.

“To every criminal out there,” Nutter said when he announced the changes. “I just put a $20,000 bounty on your head.”

SEPTA’s strategy for determining when to request tips from the public is unclear.

Late one night in November 2016, maintenance custodian Robert Wolfson was attacked on his commute home from SEPTA HQ at 12th and Market. Five teenagers ganged up on him at Frankford Transportation Center and beat him unconscious, breaking his jaw. The terminal is outfitted with cameras, and a detective told Wolfson they captured the incident on tape.

It was strikingly similar to the March 15 attack at City Hall Station. One big difference: the 2016 beating never prompted a public reward for information, nor a call to action from the union. Wolfson’s attackers were never found.

SEPTA’s official policy offers some guidelines on the process:

  • Rewards can be offered in cases of aggravated assault — either a felony of the first degree or a felony of the second degree — and recklessly endangering another person
  • SEPTA’s Crime Reward Review Committee can determine whether someone is eligible to receive the reward
  • Some people are ineligible to receive the rewards, like elected officials and SEPTA employees
  • The total reward should not exceed $1,000 per arrest

But these rules are not always followed. In 2019, when a Regional Rail conductor was shot, SEPTA exceeded its own limit by offering a total $6,000 reward, with $1,000 contributed by the Citizens Crime Commission.

Spokesperson Busch was not immediately able to explain why the agency’s reward policy was exceeded.

Other agencies often put up much higher amounts, especially when guns are involved. Philadelphia Police Department recently posted a $25,000 reward to find the gunmen who fired shots outside the Olney Transportation Center in February.

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...