Transit police at the 69th Street bus depot in March 2021

SEPTA’s top cop retired abruptly last week, following a period of low ridership and increasing safety issues on the Philadelphia transit system, which has the fifth-largest police force in Pennsylvania.

Before he stepped down the day after July Fourth, Thomas Nestel III had served as chief of the SEPTA Transit Police for nearly 10 years.

Nestel informed SEPTA a week prior that he intended to retire after the holiday, agency spokesperson Andrew Busch said, but there were rumors he’d been given an ultimatum to step away from the position — and public pressure had been building

A pending employment lawsuit brought by a SEPTA transit police officer was a deciding factor in Nestel’s departure, the Inquirer reported. In the complaint, filed last year, Jon Randolph, who is Black, alleged his supervisor created a hostile work environment based on Randolph’s race and Muslim religion, and that the supervisor used his closeness with Nestel to discourage Randolph from making complaints.

Nestel and SEPTA, in court filings, have argued they’re not liable for the supervisor’s behavior. Asked about the case, Busch said he cannot comment on ongoing litigation.

The TWU Local 234 union that represents SEPTA personnel called for Nestel’s resignation over a year ago, after an attack on a SEPTA employee. The FOP Lodge 109, the union for transit police, announced a vote of no confidence in Nestel in March of last year.

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For now, SEPTA police inspector Charles Lawson is stepping in as acting chief. There’s no timeline in place for selecting Nestel’s permanent replacement — and no indication of public engagement in the process — but the authority will consider internal and external candidates, Busch said.

Here’s a look at why Philadelphia’s transit system has a separate police force, and the issues they’ve been facing.

When did SEPTA get its own police force?

The SEPTA Transit Police Department was founded in 1981.

In the mid-1960s and late 1970s, the transit authority saw spikes in safety problems and complaints on the subway, according to SEPTA’s own historical account.

In the late 60s, a special unit of the Philadelphia police was sent into transit duty, and there was some talk of creating a separate police force, but when safety issues abated, the idea fizzled.

Then, in October 1978, following a string of attacks on SEPTA personnel, the authority started renting police academy rookies from the city — several dozen individuals known as the SEPTA Strike Force. That program lasted about two years, but didn’t survive a round of budget cuts. Subsequently, crime on the subway increased again. In a series of public hearings, one of the solutions mentioned was to create a professional transit police force.

The first SEPTA Transit Police Department class started training in February 1981, and ended with 55 new officers. Crime on transit decreased by 47% by the end of 1982, according to SEPTA.

Numerous U.S. cities have police forces assigned to the public transit system.

Where do SEPTA police operate?

SEPTA’s transit system is in Philadelphia and four Pennsylvania counties — Delaware, Montgomery, Bucks and Chester. It also stretches into two other states, New Jersey and Delaware.

SEPTA Transit Police have full police powers in those areas, which spans 2,200 square miles.

The SEPTA police are commissioned by the Pennsylvania governor, and when it’s fully staffed it’s the fifth largest police department in the state, according to the agency.

How is the department organized?

Officers routinely patrol SEPTA vehicles and stations. The K9 Unit inspects unattended bags and packages in those areas to detect explosives.

Other special ops units include:

  • Visible Intermodal Protection Enforcement Response, which is meant to reduce violent crimes on transportation
  • Special Operations Response Team, which handles specialized situations like armed hijackings and chemical terrorism
  • the criminal investigations squad, which investigates anything nefarious on SEPTA property

Transit police officers also often collaborate with other law enforcement departments, like  joining the PPD on SWAT teams.

The transit force is armed, though there have been recent issues with the type of guns they carry. In 2019, an officer’s service weapon fired while holstered — a flaw that had previously been seen with the Sig Sauer P320 handguns most carry. The authority replaced them with Glock 17s, which arrived after a delay.

How did transit police policies change under Nestel?

Nestel is a fourth-generation police officer. He landed the top job at SEPTA after being Upper Moreland’s police chief for 5 years, and before that he served 22 years in the Philadelphia Police Department.

In 2016, Nestel introduced body cameras to SEPTA’s police force, “to make good cops great cops and make the rest of them follow the rules.”

In the first half of his tenure at SEPTA, the force gained fame for cracking down on fare evaders. The chief coined the hashtag #cheesesandwich (a reference to the meal served in a jail holding cell), which he used on Twitter when posting pictures of people caught trying to ride for free.

In recent years, Nestel pulled back from fare evasion to concentrate on issues considered more serious and useful to system-wide safety, and repurposed the hashtag to those pursuits.

So are SEPTA police keeping the transit system safe?

SEPTA has seen a spike in criminal activity and violence along its routes in recent years.  Robberies and aggravated assaults were up 80% from 2019 to 2021, according to the Inquirer, despite — or perhaps furthered by — a sharp decline in ridership during the pandemic. During that time, assaults on transit employees were especially bad.

Several high-profile incidents rocked the system last year, including a rape on a train that was caught on camera, a brutal attack by teens on a student of Asian descent, and shootings near or inside several busy transit hubs.

What do transit officers think is to blame?

Omari Bervine, president of the FOP Lodge 109 — the union for SEPTA transit police — has pointed to understaffing as the root of this issue.

He wrote a letter to the SEPTA board in November, after a woman was raped on the Market-Frankford line, breaking down how the staff shortage has affected the system. With 160 officers available at the time, 90 were assigned to the patrol division, which was then split into three shifts. With that kind of staffing, only 35 officers were patrolling SEPTA’s service area at any given time, Bervine wrote.

“It is this scarcity of officers that makes it possible for a woman to be harassed for the entire length of our Market-Frankford (El) Line, then eventually raped without encountering a single police officer until the end of the line,” Bervine wrote.

Bervine did not respond to Billy Penn’s request for comment for this story.

What has SEPTA been doing to improve the situation?

Amid staffing shortages, SEPTA has been bringing in outside contractors to help address safety concerns. In April 2021, it entered a $1.5 million agreement with Allied Universal Security Services. That program got some unwanted attention last summer, when there were two reports within a few weeks of security guards assaulting individuals at transit stations.

Earlier this year, the SEPTA board approved contracts with three other security companies, adding 88 people to its SEPTA Outreach program, meant to help customers navigate trains and stations, assist with “destination-less riders” and serve as “extra eyes and ears for the Transit Police.”

The transit authority has also teamed up officers with social workers in an effort to help individuals from vulnerable populations to seek housing, help with addiction and mental health services.

Busch, the SEPTA spokesperson, said these initiatives will continue under acting chief Lawson.

So how many SEPTA police officers are there now?

Currently there are about 212 on the force, SEPTA spokesperson Busch said. The authority’s budget allows for up to 260 officers.

As the transit police struggled with understaffing, union officials pointed to pay as a major sticking point in recruiting, with salaries for SEPTA transit police officers falling $10-15k below Philadelphia Police Department and NJ Transit police salaries.

Last month, SEPTA and the union for SEPTA’s transit police, FOP Lodge 109, reached an agreement to raise salaries, effective June 19.

Why do some people think there should be fewer SEPTA police officers?

“Our view on the issue, we come from a framework where we don’t believe that more police and investing more money and funding into police is going to solve the issue of safety aboard SEPTA,” said Yasha Zarrinkelk, manager of the advocacy coalition Transit Forward Philadelphia.

Still, Zarrinkelk acknowledges that many riders feel safer when they see SEPTA police at stations and on vehicles. He said his organization applauds SEPTA’s recent efforts to engage social workers. They would like to see more programs with that mindset implemented systemwide — not just pilots, and not at select stations.

He suggested other infrastructure changes that would reduce crime: low-income fare programs, improved lighting and mural art to make stations more welcoming, and having more vendors at or around stations.

“We have not seriously and legitimately tried alternatives” to policing, he said.