Philly's transit cops try a new approach to address safety concerns on trains Homelessness and drug use became more visible on public transit during the pandemic, worrying commuters. Philadelphia is now pairing cops with social workers to help those in need.

Transit riders are worried about safety. Police in Philly are trying a new approach

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Public transit is in trouble. Ridership crashed during the pandemic, and the numbers have been slow to rebound. Transit workers say one thing keeping people away is a wariness of the homelessness and drug use that have become more visible on many systems. That's created a challenge for transit police, who are trying to reestablish order but with sensitivity. NPR's Martin Kaste has the story from Philadelphia.


AUTOMATED VOICE: Doors are opening.

ALEX BIRES: Last stop. Are you all right, sir?

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: It's the end of the line for this train on Philly's SEPTA system, and it's transit officer Alex Bires' job to roust the last few passengers from their seats.

BIRES: Sir, are you OK?

KASTE: They're older men wearing many layers of clothing, traveling with bundles and dozing.

BIRES: All right. You're just tired? You were tough to wake. You were giving me a little scare there. All right. Well, we got to get our stuff together and got to clear out the trains, all right, buddy?


KASTE: They're being kicked off before the train heads back the other way, but Bires is doing it with a light touch. He's part of SAVE. It's the acronym for a somewhat awkwardly named pilot project called Serving A Vulnerable Entity. What it means in practice is that, as Bires ejects the sleepers from the train, he also offers to connect them with social workers.

BIRES: We got outreach specialists out here today. You need any outreach, anything like that?

KASTE: Like transit systems across the country, SEPTA is struggling with a public perception that trains and buses are more dangerous now. Some of that comes from specific high-profile crimes, such as the recent subway shooting in New York or, in the case of SEPTA, an alleged sexual assault on a train last fall in front of multiple witnesses. But some of this perception also comes from the increased presence of people who aren't necessarily violent. Tom Nestel is the chief of SEPTA's Transit Police.

TOM NESTEL: These are the complaints we get every day from our riders - is it's unsafe because that person is sleeping in a seat, because that person is laying on the floor. Neither of those people are often a threat, but their antisocial behavior creates that sense that the area is not safe when they're there.

KASTE: He says you have to pay attention to passengers' sense of safety. But he also says that, these days, police have to be careful about how they act on that.

NESTEL: I think a lot of things have happened since May of 2020.

KASTE: Nestel says the George Floyd protests changed policing, including what's expected from transit police.

NESTEL: That eagerness to focus on the quality-of-life issues using the police is no longer as palatable as it was before.

KASTE: In fact, in some cities, activists have been pushing to reduce the role of transit police. Systems in Los Angeles and Seattle have responded by spending more on alternative kinds of safety personnel, such as unarmed transit ambassadors. In Philadelphia, the advocacy group Transit Forward Philadelphia talks about getting rid of transit police altogether. Yasha Zarrinkelk is the coalition manager.

YASHA ZARRINKELK: We come from an abolitionist framework, and we believe that the presence of police aboard public transit, in any public space, is not going to be the solution or answer to this public health and public safety issue.

KASTE: But he also acknowledges that not all riders share this goal. Zarrinkelk recalls talking recently to an older woman in Philadelphia about this.

ZARRINKELK: Even though she was fully aware - right? - of the systemic issues around, like, police brutality, she still felt like, you know, without police presence, she wouldn't necessarily be able to ride the system.


KASTE: So that's the tension right now as the pandemic fades - advocacy groups calling for less policing, even as many riders are calling for more. The compromise here in Philly is to have the cops present but working in tandem with social workers such as Nicole Polit.

NICOLE POLIT: Sean (ph).

SEAN: Yeah. I do not feel too good.

POLIT: Open your eyes for me. OK.

KASTE: Here on the elevated platform at Somerset Station, she and Officer Bires have intercepted a young man named Sean. He's just taken a drug - they guess it's fentanyl - and he's now standing there, buckling at the knees, almost tipping over. Around here, they call people like this dippers.

POLIT: Want to have a seat? Sit down for a minute 'cause you can't stand like this, buddy.

SEAN: Yeah.

POLIT: All right. Well, I can't have you falling down the steps or falling over into the track.

KASTE: Polit, Bires and another officer get Sean back down to the street and have him drink water until he becomes more coherent. They keep telling him that he's not in trouble, and they offer to get him into treatment. People usually say no to this, but this time, Sean agrees. Cynthia Alexander (ph) watches this interaction, and she says the relationship between locals and police at these stations is changing.

CYNTHIA ALEXANDER: Before, you'd see the cops, you'd walk the other way. As a Black person, this is real, right?

KASTE: Alexander grew up around here, and she's also an outreach worker specializing in substance abuse.

ALEXANDER: Now it's not like that. When the people who actually - you know, the vulnerables - when they see the cops, they don't turn away. They don't run. They actually look to them for help.

KASTE: But there are limits to how friendly things can get. Officer Bires says, ultimately, he's still here to enforce the law and will make arrests if he has to. Temple University criminal justice professor Jerry Ratcliffe is involved with a study of this project, which he sees as an attempt to achieve a difficult balance.

JERRY RATCLIFFE: And it's a balance between treating people with that level of compassion, but not abandon and sacrifice public space because Philadelphia needs a workable transit system, and we shouldn't abandon that system and turn it into a de facto homeless shelter.

KASTE: The study will measure outcomes - who gets more vulnerable people into services such as drug treatment - the transit officers or the civilian social workers who are backed up by the police? The results may be of interest nationally, as cities continue to reassess the role of police on transit. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Philadelphia.

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