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Police interaction with man in wheelchair again raises concerns about handling of homeless at Suburban Station

For the second time this month, police handling of homeless in the transit hub is coming under scrutiny.

Kenny Solomon, 46, sits at the Dunkin' Donuts at Suburban Station where he encountered police Tuesday night.
Kenny Solomon, 46, sits at the Dunkin' Donuts at Suburban Station where he encountered police Tuesday night.Read moreJason Laughlin / Staff

Video of a SEPTA Transit Police officer pulling a man in a wheelchair through Suburban Station has drawn new attention to how police manage the large number of homeless people who routinely stay in the transit hub.

The video shows the officer pulling the chair backward through the concourse while the man in it, Kenny Solomon, 46, seems to be in a stupor.

Tarik S. Khan, a nurse-practitioner waiting for a train to East Falls about 8 p.m. Tuesday, began recording the interaction after, he said, he heard the officer, identified as William Crawford, call the man “dumb-dumb.” In the video, Khan can be heard arguing with police over their handling of the situation.

“You’re a civil servant,” Khan, 40, says. “You should be treating people with humanity.”

Crawford responded by telling Khan he should take responsibility for the man. He later asked him to leave.

This is the second time this month that transit police officers have faced scrutiny over their interactions with people lingering or sleeping at the station. Suburban Station becomes a haven for people with nowhere else to go in the evenings. On cold nights, as many as 200 can be found there, many of them lying on the floor or huddled in the doorways of closed shops.

In the earlier incident, after midnight on Jan. 15, police trying to clear the station encountered resistance from people who didn’t want to go out into the cold, and the situation escalated to the point where officers used pepper spray and batons on at least three people.

In an interview Wednesday night at Suburban Station, Solomon said Crawford was “the worst,” adding that the officer frequently calls him names.

“I’m glad somebody was taking up for me for once,” Solomon said of Khan.

Solomon said he appeared nearly unconscious in the video because of medication he takes.

He and others at Suburban Station described officers as treating him poorly, often rolling him out of the station and abandoning him. Solomon, a Philadelphia native, said he uses a wheelchair due to injuries he sustained from being hit by a car. He said he has been living on the street for about a year, and frequently stays at Suburban Station.

“They do what they want to me around here,” Solomon said.

Others at Suburban Station, though, described the officer as notably considerate toward people in the station. Aid workers said Crawford has assisted Solomon on more than one occasion, and SEPTA officials said last month that Crawford personally took Solomon to a hospital. That happened after Solomon fell down the length of an escalator at the station, said John Cicala, vice president of the union representing the transit police.

“The guy is the most stand-up guy in the world,” he said of Crawford.

Andrew Busch, a SEPTA spokesman, said Tuesday’s incident began when police received a complaint about a man in a wheelchair loitering near a Dunkin’ Donuts store in the transit hub.

“It was just so inhumane,” Khan said Wednesday. He is typically in Suburban Station once a week, he said, and has been troubled by the way officers interact with the people lingering there. “The way that it was was just like the person was a pest,” he said. “They were rodents, or they were a mouse that you catch in your home and you want to get rid of.”

At the beginning of the recording, Khan shouts at Crawford, asking why he called the man in the chair a name. The officer’s initial comments are inaudible, but Khan questions why the officer told him to shut up.

He follows the officer, who is pulling the wheelchair, and the two argue.

“Look at the way he’s treating this man,” Khan says. “He’s a human being.”

Crawford, a nearly 20-year veteran of the force, asks Khan if he wants to take the man in the chair.

“Here you go,” the officer replies, pushing the man in the chair toward Khan. “Have a good night.”

“Why did you call him dumb-dumb?” Khan asks, at this point a few steps from the officer.

“I’ll call you dumb-dumb,” Crawford replies. “Would that help?”

>>READ MORE: SEPTA police used pepper spray, batons in clash with homeless people at Suburban Station

Crawford has been reassigned pending the outcome of an investigation, Busch said.

“It is not acceptable for SEPTA Transit Police officers to make derogatory comments to people they come into contact with in the course of doing their job,” the transit agency said in a statement.

Officers determined that the man in the wheelchair did not need medical assistance, Busch said, and he was moved out of the path of people walking through the station but was not removed from the building.

Carol Thomas, director of homeless services for Project HOME, a nonprofit dedicated to providing aid to the city’s homeless, said officers should have called her organization to assist. Solomon said he slept that night near the station’s trolley platforms, which do not close.

Cicala said officers in Suburban Station get multiple complaints a night about Solomon, and Tuesday was no exception. They are exasperated and frustrated by the situation in Suburban Station, he said. They contend with people suffering from mental health disorders and drug addiction, he said, and often can’t do anything but move people from one place to another. The interactions are often difficult.

“Every single one is a confrontation,” Cicala said.

Cicala said he would convey a message to Crawford requesting an interview by a reporter, but warned that as a union representative he would advise the officer not to talk to the press.

Advocates agree that the situation is more complicated than the video suggests, and that police need support from behavioral health experts. Project HOME staff, though, added that the interaction with the man in the wheelchair was not acceptable.

>>READ MORE: Get a first look at Suburban Station’s new homeless services center

“Name-calling, physical altercations, need to stop,” said Sister Mary Scullion, the organization’s executive director. “There’s a much better way of dealing with this.” By Wednesday night, Solomon was again sitting near the Dunkin’ Donuts where Crawford encountered him the night before. One woman bought him coffee. Another man who passes through Suburban Station nightly stopped to say hello.

“He doesn’t bother nobody,” said Jefferson Taylor. “He’s appropriate. He’s respectful.”

When an officer in a small cart drove by, Solomon mentioned that police harass him.

“You know we’re not harassing you, man,” the officer, who identified himself by his last name, Nixon, said. “We get a call for you, we come to the call.”