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THIS PAGE remains studiously neutral on labor issues, especially during contract time, but the threats of the SEPTA police force that riders' safety may be imperiled in the event of a strike sounds more like an ugly threat than real concern for riders.

Given the rise in crime SEPTA has reported since 2004- 81 percent from 2004 to 2007 -such a threat borders on terror tactics.

Yesterday, Mayor Nutter described the call from SEPTA police for riders to stay off the system because it may be dangerous "reckless, dangerous and counterproductive." At the same time, the mayor outlined a plan for Philadelphia police, private security agents and SEPTA commanders to maintain safety if SEPTA cops strike.

SEPTA's 198-member police force, without a contract for 30 months, have set a 2 p.m. deadline today for resolving their financial issues. SEPTA police receive the same Police Academy training as Philadelphia police; their starting salary is $30,752 and tops out at $49,804. They want parity with the Philadelphia police, which would bump their starting pay up by 25 percent and the maximum by 13 percent. SEPTA is offering a 3 percent raise.

The potential strike by transit police is sure to make riders uneasy about using SEPTA, especially after a series of recent attacks in the subway system, one of which was fatal. Those incidents prompted the deployment of additional officers during peak usage.

It would be a shame if the agency, which recently came out from under its legacy of underfunded stepchild, suffered from the perception that riders aren't safe. Especially as skyrocketing gas prices have driven up ridership, which is a positive step in the direction of energy conservation. A rash of strike-related crime jitters could change that.

Philadelphia boasts a handful of police departments and forces. In addition to the SEPTA and the city police departments, the Philadelphia Housing Authority and the school district have their own police forces; so do Temple and Penn. (See chart, Page 15). Maybe it's time to talk about consolidating the major forces into a single department. It could provide a more cohesive plan for ensuring safety and fighting crime, which knows no geographic borders.

Meanwhile, if SEPTA police want equality with the Philadelphia police, they should reconsider preying on the fears of taxpayers who pay their salaries. *