PHILADELPHIA - SEPTA is addressing safety concerns on their transportation system by adding new personnel from security firms to act as ‘extra eyes and ears’ for SEPTA Transit police.
The new SEPTA Outreach Services program was approved by SEPTA’s board back in February. SEPTA General Manager Leslie Richards says SEPTA partnered with three security firms to staff the program.
Combined, there will be 88 specialists who will be assigned to stations and vehicles along the Broad Street and Market-Frankford lines. They will also be present at the concourses in Center City.
Outreach specialists will remind riders about the rules for riding SEPTA vehicles and will be equipped with phones in order to facilitate direct contact with SEPTA Transit Police.
The specialists will also take over the responsibilities of opening and closing the stations, allowing police officers to conduct more patrols during overnight hours.
"The specialists will act as additional eyes and ears on the SEPTA system." Richards said at a press conference on Thursday. "They are an added visible presence that we hope will help make our customers and our employees feel safer."
Richards says SEPTA also believes the new program will help reduce quality of life complaints and make the system feel ‘more welcoming’ to riders. The Outreach Services program will serve as a ‘force multiplier’ rather than a replacement for law enforcement, Richards added.
SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel referred to the new specialists as ‘ambassadors’ and ‘essentially disorder interveners’ and ‘field observers.’
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Nestel also shared examples he says shows their immediate impact over the past two weeks. He cited examples like alerting first responders to individuals dealing with medical emergencies, and intervening in a fight between school students.
"In the last two weeks they’ve discouraged 160 people from fare evading and have guided 735 people, who were destination-less riders, off of the system and offered them social services,"Nestel said. "This is a work in progress that has tremendous potential. It is not a replacement for police."
The new addition comes after a recent string of violent attacks on SEPTA vehicles and properties. SEPTA safety took center stage at a Philadelphia City Council budget meeting earlier this week, as officials have tried to rebuild public confidence in the nation’s sixth-largest transit system.
Richards admitted the latest series of incidents on SEPTA property has impacted ridership. At the same time, she says that violent crime on SEPTA property is down compared to the first quarter of 2021.
In addition to the new outreach workers, Richards says SEPTA is also working to staff eight new positions for a virtual patrol center to watch the 30,000 SEPTA cameras. Those positions will help to make sure that patrol officers are dispatched to parts of the system where they are needed most, officials say.
In a letter sent to Philadelphia City Council ahead of Tuesday's hearing, the Fraternal Order of Transit Police said transit officers are leaving for jobs that pay between $10k-$15k more annually.
SEPTA Transit Police believe this is why their budget for 260 officers remains about 50 officers short.
Richards addressed the shortages on the police force on Thursday, saying they are actively recruiting new officers, and working with Fraternal Order of Transit Police in order to make compensation ‘as competitive as possible in the current job market.’
Cleanliness of SEPTA properties was also address on Thursday, and officials say they budgeted to hire 200 new cleaners this year and that they are well on their way to reaching that goal.