Michelle Gustafson for NPR
Public transportation in the US is struggling. Passenger numbers declined during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic and numbers are still just 61% of what they were before the pandemic.
This is partly because commuters are slow to return to personal work. Another factor, however, is caution.
“I’d say safety is definitely one reason we’re seeing a decline in passenger numbers,” said Yasha Zarrinkelk, coalition manager at Transit Forward Philadelphia advocacy group. “There is a hesitation for riders to return to the transit system.”
Some of that hesitation is based on high-profile violent crimes, such as last week’s mass shooting at a Brooklyn subway station or the alleged multi-witness rape on a train in Philadelphia last fall.
But homelessness and drug use also play a role. With fewer commuters on trains and buses and the suspension of fare enforcement on many systems during the pandemic, it has become more difficult to ignore the presence of what transit officials euphemistically refer to as the “vulnerable population.”
“These are the complaints we get every day from our riders,” said Thomas J. Nestel III, the chief of police for SEPTA, the transit system for the Philadelphia region.
†[Riders say] it is unsafe because that person is sleeping in a chair, because that person is lying on the floor. Neither person often poses a threat, but their antisocial behavior creates a sense that the area is not safe when they are there,” says Nestel.
Various local solutions for a national problem
Some systems have responded by ramping up tariff enforcement again. In Denver, officials recently announced plans to allow only paying passengers access to a major bus terminal.
In other cities, transit police are told to hold back. The Sound Transit system in the Seattle area is moving towards lighter fare enforcement, relying more on civilian “fare ambassadors” rather than sworn police officers. The move is in response to accusations of inequality because a disproportionate number of passengers caught by enforcement are black.
A similar approach has been proposed in Los Angeles, where LA Metro is funding “alternative” public safety efforts for trains and buses, though it also extended its contracts with the law enforcement agencies that patrol the system until the end of this year.
Nestel, chief of the Philadelphia transit police, says the 2020 protests against George Floyd have changed national attitudes. “That eagerness to focus on quality of life issues with the help of the police is no longer as palatable as it used to be,” he says.
Philadelphia transit invents a way to save those in need
SEPTA’s solution is to match its transit officers with civilian social workers. In a pilot project launched last fall called Serving a Vulnerable Entity (SAVE), police and “outreach specialists” — social workers — are patrolling together on trains, looking for the people they call “vulnerabilities” and offering them services to.
Alexander Bires is one of the SAVE officers. At the end of a railroad track, he goes through the carriages and sets out men with bundles who would rather stay on board — and sleep. But he is careful with it.
“We’ve got to pack up and clean up the trains, okay, buddy?” he says to an elderly man, adding, “We have outreach specialists here today. Do you need outreach? Something like that?’
The idea is to have officers enforce the rules while also connecting people to services such as temporary shelter or drug treatment. At another station, near an open-air drug market, a man who has apparently just taken drugs appears on the platform, his knees trembling. The police on the system call people in this state “dippers”.
Bires and a social worker, Nicole Polit, escort him back to the street.
“Open your eyes to me,” Polit tells the man. “I can’t have you falling down the stairs or falling into the rails.”
They stay with him, and as he sobers up, they offer to help him. Most people say no, but in this case he agrees. Within minutes, a car belonging to the social services contractor arrives to take him to drug treatment.
†[Vulnerable people] trust them more now,” Polit says of the transit officers. ‘Because they don’t just see them as a uniform. We had to make them believe that the cops cared about the people on the street.”
Polit says she would be less willing to do this job without the presence of sworn public transport officers. “You never know when something is going to happen. So there’s no point in taking the agents out and adding social workers.”
Some activists would rather see less transit police
But activist groups across the country continue to demand just that: services, without police.
“We come from an abolitionist framework,” said Zarrinkelk of Transit Forward Philadelphia. “We believe that the presence of police on board public transport and in public spaces will not be the solution or the answer to this public health and safety problem.”
He would rather see security efforts carried out by civilians and people from surrounding neighborhoods. But he acknowledges that some people his organization has surveyed in those same neighborhoods disagree. He remembers an older woman he spoke to about this.
“While she was fully aware of the systemic issues surrounding police brutality, she still felt that way without the police presence, she wouldn’t necessarily be able to run the system,” he says.
There is also a limit to how far you have to go with comments like the SAVE program.
“Cities have to make decisions — Philadelphia isn’t the wealthiest city in the United States,” said Jerry Ratcliffe, a criminal justice professor at Temple University who studies the SAVE program and the effectiveness of this type of outreach by police and civilian workers.
The study will track results, as measured by the number of “vulnerable people” accepting services. The question is whether it is enough to have police officers trained to connect people to services, or whether they have to work with social workers.
Ratcliffe says the results could be instructive for transit systems across the country as they try to recover from the pandemic.
“It’s a balance of treating people with that level of compassion, but not leaving the public space and sacrificing it,” he says. “Because Philadelphia needs a workable transit system. And we shouldn’t abandon that system and turn it into a de facto homeless shelter.”