Is SEPTA Police Chief's transparency sincere or show?

SEPTA-top-cop-600
After cellphone video went viral of an alleged fare-evading father's struggle with a SEPTA officer, Thomas Nestel was an open book. Now that the investigation is over, he's not giving specifics.

FIRST SANTA CLAUS, then the Easter Bunny, now Chief Transparency?

Is there nothing left to believe in?

Consider this: The SEPTA police department had an ugly incident on their hands last month when cellphone video that went viral caught a veteran officer grabbing an allegedly fare-evading father by the throat while the man held his 18-month-old daughter.

At a subsequent press conference, SEPTA police Chief Thomas Nestel, the city's most vocal champion of police reform and a practitioner of transparency, was contrite.

He took responsibility. He gave specifics, including Officer William Crawford's name. (Something the Philadelphia Police Department still isn't comfortable doing.)

Nestel was disappointed, disturbed. There would be an internal-affairs investigation. They would learn from the incident.

The city's poster boy for transparency was being grandly transparent. Bravo!

Then last week I called SEPTA and asked for the results of the investigation.

I expected another press conference, maybe one with handouts or a PowerPoint with color graphics and a step-by-step account of how they came to their decision. OK, not really, but close, because that's how open this super-tweeting police chief has been.

What I did not expect was that I'd have to pry information out of Nestel and his agency.

SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams explained that human resources' guidance limited transparency on this case: "All I can say is that appropriate discipline has been imposed for the officer and that the discipline was not termination."

I'm sorry, SEPTA. Say what? Had I misdialed and reached the offices of the much less transparent mayor or district attorney?

To Williams' credit she went back to whomever was determining the degree of transparency and shared a little more.

After the internal-affairs investigation showed that the officer violated the department's response to resistance policy, a three-person board of inquiry determined his punishment.

But that punishment, apparently, is for SEPTA to know and for the public to never find out. For all we know, it was a suspension or 200 push-ups or lifetime #cheesesandwiches, Nestel's signature Twitter hashtag.

At first I was told that I couldn't even talk to Nestel, but when I pushed, again, I got a call that included Nestel and Williams.

Nestel said that in reaction to the incident, de-escalation training for all officers would be ramped up. The department was also in talks with a contractor to train officers in arrest tactics. But he could not, or would not, tell me what specific discipline the officer faced, other than to repeat that the officer wasn't fired.

I'm glad the officer, who previously had a solid record, is still on the force. To do otherwise would have been excessive. But my pushing for details wasn't just about holding the officer accountable, it was about determining just how committed to reform Nestel and his department truly are.

Nestel and Williams told me that the decision about what information to share was determined by internal labor relations. But human resources and union issues did not deter Nestel last month when he stood at a podium at SEPTA headquarters and - refreshingly - held nothing back.

You can't be transparent on your own terms. Being sorta transparent is like being sorta pregnant. You either are or you aren't.

If not transparent, Nestel took a stab at being explanatory.

"When you're transforming, you take small steps," he said. "It's not going to happen overnight and there are other entities than just me and media relations in trying to move forward in building public trust."

Remember when I said it felt like I was kicking a puppy when I talked to Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey the other day about tainted cops getting their jobs back? This time, with Nestel, I got the sense that I was talking to a muzzled pup.

Nestel denied he was being silenced, but suspicious and skeptical me thinks there are some SEPTA suits who aren't on board with Nestel's openness, and rather than take their heads out from their . . . um, offices, they want to keep doing things the same old way.

What a colossal mistake, what a huge step back for a department that's been one of the few shining beacons of transparency in this city.

But you know what . . . cue that Journey song, because I'm not ready to stop believing.

I want to believe that Nestel's openness isn't just for show.

I want to believe that after some thought whatever numbskulls shut Nestel down will see the error of their ways.

At the very least, I hope they understand what a disservice clamping down on information is doing to the department and to their top cop's reputation.

Walk back toward the light, Chief Transparency. We're waiting.


Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel

On Facebook: Helen.Ubinas