April 27, 2022
The president of the union representing SEPTA's transit police force called the authority's recruitment challenges "self-inflicted" on Wednesday and lamented that the need for more officers requires urgent attention to combat worsening crime.
"In just the past five years, we have lost over 100 officers to resignations, almost all of whom have left to take police officer positions with departments offering higher salaries, better benefits and better working conditions," said Omari Bervine, president and CEO of the Fraternal Order of Transit Police Lodge 109.
Tensions over the state of security on SEPTA appear to be reaching a head. The transit system in Philadelphia is nearing the end of one of its most violent months in recent memory, including an alleged rape on the Broad Street Line subway last weekend, a gunpoint robbery and a pair of stabbings, among other incidents.
SEPTA officials have repeatedly stated that weak officer recruitment has prevented the authority from putting more police at stations and on trains to deter criminals.
"We know that policing is not the solution to everything," Bervine said. "But it's common sense that having more officers present on SEPTA will make people think twice about committing crimes. Right now, the lack of authority gives some people the feeling that they can get away with crime."
SEPTA currently has about 210 employees on the transit police force, a number that includes those in leadership positions.
Before the pandemic, during a typical year, SEPTA officials said the number of officers has been closer to 220 or 230. The authority's budget has room for up to 260 officers, but SEPTA has fallen behind competing law enforcement agencies to hire for transit jobs that some police officers deem less appealing than other opportunities.
"The problem is not that people don’t want to be police officers. The harsh reality is that nobody wants to be a SEPTA police officer," Bervine said. "SEPTA is among the lowest paying full-time police jobs in the area."
An entry-level SEPTA transit police officer will earn about $46,000 per year, a salary that increases to just more than $49,000 after graduation from the police academy. Bervine said this is about $10,000 less than where Philadelphia Police Department recruits start and roughly $15,000 below the starting salaries earned by NJ Transit police and officers with the Delaware River Port Authority.
The job of a SEPTA transit police officer is about 90% on foot and moving through the transit system, compared to the work done by officers in other departments with more vehicle patrols, Bervine said.
With increasing levels of violent crime and other chronic problems, such as drug use and homelessness, would-be SEPTA transit police recruits are more inclined to pursue what they consider potentially less demanding jobs elsewhere, with better pay.
"SEPTA must spend a significant portion of its vast financial resources on making its transit police officer salaries more competitive and improving working conditions so that we can attract the quality candidates that we so desperately need, to aid in our efforts to keep SEPTA’s passengers and employees safe as they traverse our transit system," Bervine said.
SEPTA ridership has not yet recovered from the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, which greatly reduced the number of workers relying on transit in favor of remote work. The threat of crime has not helped in bringing the public back to routine use of SEPTA.
Philadelphia City Councilman David Oh has lately pressured SEPTA to make the changes necessary to fill out its transit police force. Oh is threatening an amendment to withhold $10 million from SEPTA's budget unless more officers are hired, a position that has the full support of the transit police union, Bervine said.
City Council is scheduled to hold a May 3 hearing on SEPTA's budget.
"If SEPTA needs more police officers, the reality is that more needs to be done to make this a job people want and that can compete with other agencies," Bervine said.
Over the last year, SEPTA has hired unarmed guards and social outreach workers to monitor its facilities and work with vulnerable populations on trains. These efforts have had mixed results, but SEPTA has struggled to recruit new armed officers. The authority's private security contractors have not been as effective as hoped in improving the situation during the pandemic. Their perception was not helped by a violent attack on a SEPTA customer by an Allied Universal Security Services employee last summer, resulting in criminal charges.
The union has attempted to address its concerns with SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards and other officials, but hasn't gotten much attention from SEPTA's brass.
"Thus far we have been unable to get Ms. Richards to even meet with us, despite our numerous requests spanning several months," Bervine said.
The union chief also said improvements to working conditions are needed for existing transit police officers.
"Our transit officers are frequently forced to deal with unacceptable working conditions, such as an entire district headquarters not having hot water for over a month, or having to eat lunch in break rooms that are missing ceiling tiles and leak whenever it rains," Bervine said.
A man sought in connection with multiple sexual assaults, including the rape reported last weekend on SEPTA's Broad Street Line, was taken into custody by Philadelphia police Wednesday morning, officials said.
Quintez Adams, 28, was wanted following the incident that happened Sunday afternoon between the Girard and Erie avenue stations. An investigation was handled jointly by PPD's Special Victims Unit and SEPTA Transit Police, who reviewed surveillance footage to help identify Adams.
SEPTA officials said Adams knew the woman in the attack and that she reported the incident to authorities.
During the course of the investigation, police determined that Adams was allegedly behind an indecent exposure incident in Center City on April 4. That incident happened around 7th and Market streets, police said.
Investigators had said Adams was known to frequent the area around 13th and Market streets.
A 29-year-old man was stabbed in the arm at Suburban Station during a confrontation during the early morning hours on Saturday. Separately, a man was stabbed multiple times Sunday at SEPTA's 34th Street Station on Sunday afternoon, police said.
The stabbing victims are expected to recover and no updates have been provided on the status of investigations into these incidents.
Also on Sunday, at 15th Street Station, a man was robbed at gunpoint — an incident Bervine said was "overshadowed" by the amount of crime SEPTA saw over the weekend.
In two additional incidents in April, at 30th Street Station and Berks Station on the Market-Frankford Line, two people were pushed onto the subway tracks. No arrests have been made in either incident.