SEPTA police response better than most, but still needs improvement

20150626-SEPTA-police-video
Ellis Smith, 20, was sitting with his daughter, who is about 1 to 2 years old, on his lap when officer William Crawford confronted him on the train at the Erie-Torresdale stop.

HERE WE GO again. More video showing a police officer behaving badly.

This time it was a SEPTA cop captured on cellphone and surveillance video grabbing an alleged fare evader by the throat while the man held his 18-month-old daughter.

The videos caught Officer William Crawford, a 16-year SEPTA police veteran, attempting to pull Ellis Smith, 20, off the train during Thursday's rush hour on the Market-Frankford Line. An internal affairs investigation is underway.

We've been here so often we have a script, don't we? Viral video. Outrage. Calls for answers, justice and change.

Play. Stop. Repeat.

Except . . . there were some differences this time: A department that released information quickly, including surveillance video and the officer's name. A top cop who not only took questions and criticism, but also responsibility for an officer who said he felt that if he walked away from the fare evader he would be disciplined.

"If a 16-year-veteran believes he can't use judgment to step away from a situation that's spiraling into something that might jeopardize the safety of a child, that's on me," said a contrite SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel, who has made fare evaders a focus of his crime-fighting strategy.

"This is the kind of incident that causes us to reflect on what we tell our police officers and how we tell them," he said. "Obviously I have to go back to the drawing board. While a successful campaign to reduce crime worked for us, it didn't work yesterday afternoon for a little child over a fare evasion."

Mind you, none of that excuses what happened: a little girl traumatized over $2.25 - or explains why Nestel called the officer's actions "unacceptable," but is keeping him on the streets during the internal affairs investigation. Yes, the officer was acting correctly - until he grabbed the guy by the throat.

Maybe that's why some calling for protests aren't pausing long enough to realize that Nestel's response last week was actually progress.

It was. Everyone should take a breath and recognize that. Because isn't this why so many protesting police brutality have taken to the streets, why so many across the country are still pushing for changes in transparency and cop and community relations?

In a lot of ways, this is a test for the social-media savvy Nestel, who is big on civil liberties and #cheesesandwiches, the hash tag he regularly uses whenever someone gets arrested or receives a citation because that's what they serve prisoners in Philly jails.

Nestel has led the way on body cameras, handling confrontations and improving relationships with the community. He's even made up cards to warn parents not to scare their kids by threatening them with police.

So no wonder Nestel looked like he was going to be sick during last week's press conference. The incident went against almost every aspect of policing he has been trying to improve.

While there was video on the train, cameras at Margaret-Orthodox station were not working. So there's only a cashier's statement - not released yet - that the father refused to pay. Smith told NBC10 yesterday that he did.

Officer Crawford showed restraint when he talked for several minutes to an uncooperative Smith, who was charged with fare evasion, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. But then Crawford lost it - even while you can hear other passengers offer to pay the father's fare.

During a brief scuffle on the platform between the officers and Smith, who was still holding his child, one of many responding officers pushing passengers back on the train is heard saying to someone shooting video: "You don't get rights, it's private property. That's how it works."

Oh boy.

But more importantly, there is Smith's daughter, Suehaiah, the little girl in the pink outfit who witnessed all of this. She wasn't injured, but it's going to take more than a "cops are your friends" card to erase that scary memory.

And no, I'm not giving the father a pass here. That cop overreacted and put a little girl in danger - period - but so did her father by arguing and resisting arrest with his child in his arms.

"It's not about him," said Nestel. "This is about us. I'm not going to change how someone in the public deals with the police. I have to change how the police deal with the public."

The department mostly deserves credit for how it's handled the situation so far. But until common sense trumps policy, it's cheese sandwiches all around.


Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel

On Facebook: Helen.Ubinas