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

Michelle Gustafson for NPR

Officer Alexander Bires of SEPTA, the transit system for the Philadelphia region, speaks with a homeless man about outreach services at the 11th Street stop on the Market-Frankford Line in Philadelphia.

Public transit systems in the U.S. are struggling. Ridership plummeted during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the numbers are still only 61% of what they were before the pandemic.

This is partly because commuters have been slow to return to in-person work. Another factor, though, is wariness.

“I would say safety is absolutely a reason why we see a decline in ridership,” says Yasha Zarrinkelk, coalition manager with the advocacy group Transit Forward Philadelphia. “There’s a hesitancy for riders to get back on the transit system.”

Some of that hesitancy is based on high-profile violent crimes, such as the mass shooting in a subway station in Brooklyn last week or the alleged rape in front of multiple witnesses on a train in Philadelphia last fall.

But homelessness and drug use play a role, too. With fewer commuters on trains and buses and the suspension of fare enforcement on many systems during the pandemic, it has become harder to ignore the presence of what transit officials euphemistically refer to as the “vulnerable population.”

“These are the complaints we get every day from our riders,” says Thomas J. Nestel III, the chief of the police department of SEPTA, the transit system for the Philadelphia region.

“[Riders say] it’s unsafe because that person is sleeping in a seat, because that person is laying on the floor. Neither of those people is often a threat, but their anti-social behavior creates that sense that the area is not safe when they’re there,” Nestel says.

Various local solutions to a national problem

Some systems have responded by stepping up fare enforcement again. In Denver, officials recently announced plans to allow access to a key bus terminal to paying passengers only.

In other cities, transit police are being told to hold back. The Seattle-area Sound Transit system is moving toward lighter fare enforcement, relying more on civilian “fare ambassadors,” instead of sworn police officers. The move is a response to allegations of inequity because a disproportionate number of passengers caught by the enforcement are Black.

A similar approach has been proposed in Los Angeles, where LA Metro is funding “alternative” public safety efforts for trains and buses, although it also extended its contracts with the law enforcement agencies that patrol the system through the end of this year.

Nestel, Philadelphia’s transit police chief, says the 2020 George Floyd protests changed attitudes nationally. “That eagerness to focus on quality-of-life issues using the police is no longer as palatable as it was before,” he says.

Philadelphia transit devises a way to save those who are struggling

SEPTA’s solution is to pair its transit officers with civilian social workers. In a pilot project started last fall called Serving a Vulnerable Entity (SAVE), police and “outreach specialists” — social workers — patrol trains together, looking for the people they call “vulnerables” and offering them services.

Alexander Bires is one of the SAVE officers. At the end of a train line, he goes through the cars, evicting men with bundles who’d rather stay — and sleep — on board. But he’s gentle about it.

“We gotta get our stuff and clear off the trains, all right, buddy?” he says to one older man, adding, “We got outreach specialists out here today. You need outreach? Anything like that?”

The idea is to have officers enforce the rules while at the same time connecting people with services such as temporary shelters or drug treatment. At another station, near an open-air drug market, a man who has apparently just taken drugs appears on the platform, knees buckling. Police on the system call people in this state “dippers.”

Bires and a civilian social worker, Nicole Polit, escort him back to the street.

“Open your eyes for me,” Polit tells the man. “I can’t have you falling down the steps or falling over into the tracks.”

They stay with him, and as he sobers up, they offer to get him help. Most people say no, but in this case, he agrees. Within minutes, a car from the social services contractor arrives to take him to drug treatment.

“[Vulnerable people] trust them more now,” Polit says of the transit officers. “Because they don’t see them as just a uniform. We needed them to believe that the officers cared about the people on the street.”

Polit says she would be less willing to do this job without the presence of sworn transit cops. “You don’t ever know when something’s just going to pop off. So it makes zero sense to take the officers away and add social workers.”

Some activists would rather see fewer transit police

But activist groups across the country continue to call for just that — services, without police.

“We come from an abolitionist framework,” says Transit Forward Philadelphia’s Zarrinkelk. “We believe that the presence of police aboard public transit and any public space is not going to be the solution or answer to this public health and safety issue.”

He would prefer to see safety efforts delivered by civilians and people from surrounding neighborhoods. But he acknowledges that some of the people his organization has surveyed in those same neighborhoods disagree. He recalls an older woman he talked to about this.

“Even though she was fully aware, right, of the systemic issues around police brutality, she still felt like that without police presence, she wouldn’t necessarily be able to ride the system,” he says.

There’s also a limit to how far to take responses like the SAVE program.

“Cities have to make decisions — Philadelphia isn’t the richest city in the United States,” says Jerry Ratcliffe, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University who’s studying the SAVE program and the effectiveness of this kind of outreach by police and civilian social workers.

The study will track outcomes, as measured by the number of “vulnerable people” who accept services. The question is whether it’s enough to have police who are trained to connect people with services, or whether to team them up with social workers.

Ratcliffe says the results could be instructive for transit systems across the country as they try to recover from the pandemic.

“It’s a balance between treating people with that level of compassion, but not abandon and sacrifice public space,” he says. “Because Philadelphia needs a workable transit system. And we shouldn’t abandon that system and turn it into a de facto homeless shelter.”

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.