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SEPTA adds addiction and mental health specialists as nation debates future of policing

“What this program does ... is truly help people address the issue that’s at the heart of why they’re here. Locking them up and putting them in jail is not addressing their true issue.”

Nicole Polit, outreach specialist working in conjunction with SEPTA transit police, talks with a person on Kensington Avenue in Philadelphia.
Nicole Polit, outreach specialist working in conjunction with SEPTA transit police, talks with a person on Kensington Avenue in Philadelphia.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

The fat, heavy droplets of rain pounding the ground washed away just about any trace of color from the landscape surrounding Kensington and Allegheny Avenues last week.

The Market-Frankford Line’s canopy brought welcomed refuge to anyone looking to dodge the pellets, including to workers providing perhaps the only contrast to the muted slate-blue framework and shades of gray otherwise in purview. Clad in royal purple, they’re outreach specialists with Merakey, a social services organization that recently partnered with SEPTA for a pilot program that’s central to a nationwide discussion of what policing should look like.

The effort, “Serving a Vulnerable Entity," pairs substance-abuse and mental health professionals with SEPTA transit police to extend treatment and community-based resources to those who need it. Its workers give out basics like a fresh pair of socks and, most important, establish relationships, said Jermaine Graham, Merakey executive director.

It also hopes to address a spike in some types of crime reported during the pandemic — an uptick “directly connected to the increase in the vulnerable population,” SEPTA Police Chief Thomas J. Nestel III said.

“What this program does, and what this project will do, is truly help people address the issue that’s at the heart of why they’re here," Graham said. “Locking them up and putting them in jail is not addressing their true issue.”

Crime spikes

With commutes disrupted and many activities either halted or operating at reduced capacity, SEPTA ridership has plummeted during the pandemic, down about 65% from pre-coronavirus levels on subways, trolleys, and buses, and down about 85% on Regional Rail.

“The ridership went down, but the vulnerable community did not," Nestel said.

Despite the lack of riders, certain crimes reported by SEPTA transit police have risen, such as robberies without the use of a gun or knife, as well as thefts by mislaid or lost property then reported as stolen. There were 141 robberies categorized as “other" and 471 thefts by mislaid between January and mid-October this year, compared with 63 and 413 during the same period last year, according to crime data provided by SEPTA.

“The pandemic, in my eyes, has definitely increased the number of people that are suffering from poverty, addiction, and mental health, and they have certainly migrated to the system, and they’re victimizing each other," Nestel said. "That’s been a challenge for, geez, not just SEPTA, but the region and the entire nation in how to address the vulnerable population.”

The authority did not have quantifiable data to support Nestel’s conclusion about the involvement of the vulnerable community, but instead pointed to what transit police have learned in investigations and to a familiarity with the people involved in incidents, spokesperson Andrew Busch said.

Other crime statistics have remained fairly constant during the pandemic. There were 24 “other” aggravated assaults between January to mid-October this year compared with 21 during the same period last year, and eight burglaries compared with seven.

Asked about the crime that did increase, Troy Parham, of the Fraternal Order of Transit Police, points to a number of contributing factors like already existing staffing struggles, more officers calling out for pandemic-related reasons, and deployment issues.

Criminologists referred to a sort of “sweet spot” for crime occurrences.

“With reduced ridership, you have fewer eyes on the street," said Brian Wyant, associate professor at La Salle University’s department of sociology and criminal justice. “So that means there’s fewer people to witness crime, there’s fewer people to intervene with crime, and it creates this feedback loop."

‘We just aren’t equipped’

During a Philadelphia City Council committee hearing in 2019, Nestel said SEPTA needed to add mental health specialists, remarking that “what concerns [him] is making a police response to an issue that is not a police issue.” That topic is all too familiar these days, given talk of defunding and reforming police that escalated over the summer and rose again last month with the police killing of Walter Wallace Jr.

“We’re going to be watching closely to see how we can improve it, so that it succeeds in a different way than just throwing police officers at a problem," Nestel said.

Parham welcomes the help of any outside agency with expertise in the complicated, societal issues.

“People expect police to be counselor, plumber, marriage counselor, lawyer, carpenter," he said. "They expect us to be all of these things, and we just aren’t equipped. We don’t have the training to be experts in the field.”

SEPTA’s plans to move forward with “SAVE” after a successful try last year were delayed because of the pandemic, Nestel said. In August, SEPTA general manager Leslie Richards approved $290,000 for the six-month pilot that started last week.

» READ MORE: Walter Wallace Jr. received mental health treatment just days before his death. A West Philly crisis center questions why it wasn’t included in Monday’s response.

The authority has brought on four specialists and plans to add two more. The teams mostly work in Kensington and Center City, what SEPTA Police Sgt. Bryan Carney calls the authority’s “two biggest incident spots,” but they are also able to respond to other areas.

“In a couple years, I’m hoping that this becomes a regular thing in every police department," he said, "and that every municipality, state, everybody across the board mirrors what we’re doing in recognizing that this can’t be all the police responsibility.”

Though the pilot is in its early days, David Malloy, Merakey mobile unit supervisor and community liaison, is in it for the long haul. He said specialists aren’t out at the Market-Frankford Line’s Allegheny stop to have one conversation but, instead, to have many.

“People, they reach out for help, if the help isn’t available, that window closes very quickly," he said. “So, that’s the other reason why we want to be out here."

Graham equates the specialists' role to that as a kind of grower — someone sowing a seed as rain pounds the ground.

“Success is also the reputation of SEPTA changing," he said. “It’s not just looked at as ‘Those are police officers here to lock you up.’ The success of this program is changing what police are to the community."