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SEPTA’s transit police go on strike; service to continue

Officers began the strike Wednesday afternoon.

Officer William Sams and other striking SEPTA Transit Police Officers picket outside of SEPTA Headquarters at 1234 Market St..
Officer William Sams and other striking SEPTA Transit Police Officers picket outside of SEPTA Headquarters at 1234 Market St..Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Police officers responsible for patrolling SEPTA’s stations and vehicles began a strike Wednesday afternoon.

SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch confirmed that a strike by nearly 200 officers had begun at 3:30 p.m.

The transit agency is not anticipating the strike will cause any service interruptions. SEPTA intends to rely on the department’s 49 supervisors to work 12-hour shifts to cover patrols. Philadelphia police will assist with enforcement at transit hubs in the city, Busch said. Police in suburban communities will provide coverage at Regional Rail stations.

SEPTA customers should continue to call 911 or dial SEPTA Transit Police dispatchers at 215-580-8111 if they need assistance, or to report suspicious or unusual activity. Customers also can report incidents to police using the SEPTA Transit Watch app.

By late afternoon Wednesday, transit officers had put up a picket line outside SEPTA’s headquarters at 1234 Market St.

Bundled in winter-weather layers to withstand Wednesday’s sudden blast of subfreezing temperatures, several dozen officers held up picket signs and welcomed the occasional expressions of solidarity from passersby.

One of the picket signs read: “We stopped a man with an Illegal Gun from boarding your train." Another read, “SEPTA doesn’t care about your safety.”

Several Civil Affairs officers from the city Police Department stood watch from inside the building’s entrance just in case of trouble. There were no reported incidents.

Across the street, Ilene Kaplan, 70, said she wasn’t worried about the transit police strike as she waited for a westbound bus.

“It doesn’t impact me,” she said.

“More important is the poor service of the buses. That impacts me more,” she added.

One issue that led to the walkout was SEPTA’s policy regarding body cameras, said Omari Bervine, president of Fraternal Order of Transit Police Lodge 109, which represents 178 SEPTA officers. SEPTA does not allow officers to review body camera footage before providing statements when there is an investigation into officers’ conduct, he said. That policy puts officers at a disadvantage, Bervine said, if the details they provide differ from what’s on camera.

“If you are asking officers these questions, not about the material things of the incident, but about the minutiae,” Bervine said in an interview after the strike began, “there’s no way this officer’s recollection is ever going to be as accurate as a video depiction.”

The unreliability of memory challenged by a recorded video could result in an officer unintentionally providing false testimony, he said.

SEPTA declined to comment Wednesday on the body camera issue but shared its policy, which states that officers must prepare an incident report before viewing video.

In 2017, two civil rights groups issued a scorecard on body camera policies and recommended that officers file a written report or statement on an incident before reviewing body camera footage. The study, conducted by the Washington-based nonprofits the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Upturn, found that none of the 75 police departments nationwide it reviewed, including Philadelphia’s, fully complied with the recommendation. Philadelphia Police Department policies still allow officers to review body camera video before making a statement. SEPTA’s police department was not part of the national study.

In a separate 2017 report, Upturn found that allowing officers to review video of an incident before providing their own account could alter an officer’s memory of an incident or what is in a report. At worst, an officer could falsely provide a narrative to match what video shows or doesn’t show.

“Unrestricted footage review allows officers to square their version of events to the footage,” the report stated, “and potentially create false beliefs about what actually happened.”

Other unresolved issues involve work rules, Bervine said, though he declined to provide details.

SEPTA’s police have been at the center of controversy over how to address the number of homeless people who shelter at the city’s transit hubs, particularly Suburban Station. Officers are assigned to clear the station before it’s locked every night about 12:30 a.m., and in one January incident criticized by advocates for the homeless, an encounter between police and people in the station escalated, and officers used batons and pepper spray to subdue people.

The incident raised questions about what resources were available for people who stayed in Suburban Station on cold nights, and how well police were coordinating with social service agencies that might offer help. Police plan to team with behavioral health experts during the nightly interactions with people in the station.

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

The policy of clearing the stations after midnight will continue during the strike, Busch said.

Transit officers’ contract expired in March 2018, Bervine said, and negotiations had been underway since July of last year. Wages were a central concern for the union as recently as Monday, when the union released a statement highlighting a $30,000 pay difference between officers and their supervisors. The union argued that stagnant wages have caused 50 officers — about 20 percent of the workforce — to leave for other jobs.

The department’s ideal staffing is about 270 officers but is closer to 230 right now, including a small number of employees currently in the academy, Busch said.

The average salary for a SEPTA officer is $78,706, including overtime, SEPTA reported. By Wednesday, though, the wage issue was no longer a wedge between labor and management.

“It was our understanding that we were close enough on wages that it wouldn’t have held up a deal,” Bervine said.

SEPTA officials seemed surprised Wednesday that negotiations collapsed.

“There was no reason for there to be a strike today. Negotiations were progressing,” Busch said. “We want to get them going again as soon as possible.”

On Wednesday morning, however, the body camera issue, among others, proved a serious sticking point. The union threatened to strike at noon but continued talks for another three hours after that before representatives walked out.

>>READ MORE: SEPTA deal, reached at 5 a.m., will raise wages and health contributions

Strikes by SEPTA workers are nothing new in Philadelphia. In 2016 transit workers brought buses, trolleys, and subways to a halt for a week with a strike, their 12th since 1975. The most recent SEPTA officers’ strike was in 2012 and lasted nine days.

Staff writer Robert Moran contributed to this article.