On a cold night in January, SEPTA transit police officers asked a group of homeless people who were finding shelter in Suburban Station to leave as the station was closing for the night. The group refused. Violence erupted and the officers used their batons and pepper spray. Who threw the first punch is disputed. A few days later, a SEPTA police officer was filmed dragging a homeless person who seems to be in a state of stupor in a wheelchair across Suburban Station. When confronted by a bystander, the officer responded: “You want to take him? Go. Take him home with you.”
Some people who saw the video saw a burned-out police officer who handles a difficult population on a daily basis. Others saw lack of empathy and dehumanization of a person who is homeless. At the heart of both of these incidents are police officers who are tasked with dealing with a social problem, not a crime. It’s easy to blame this kind of behavior on specific officers, but that avoids a larger conversation about the role of police in Philadelphia and if it matches the city’s evolving needs.
In addition to an increase in homicides in recent years and a persistently high number of shooting incidents, officers in Philadelphia find themselves not only responding to crime but reversing overdoses, driving victims of penetrating trauma to emergency rooms, helping community members find jobs, and facilitating gun buyback programs, just to name a few examples. At the same time, six of 10 homicides in the city go unsolved.
The situation at Suburban Station is more than a one-off incident. It is another piece of evidence that we need to rethink the role of police in our society.
Police Commissioner Richard Ross agrees that the challenges police face are changing. “We are confronted with things that we never had to deal with before,” he told the Inquirer this week. “The social services aspects seem to be increasing one year to the next.”
Police officers are on the front lines. They’re often the first responders and the witnesses to escalating incidents — criminal or not. If they are asked to help or see someone in need, saying “this isn’t our job” is not an option. “Police officers understand that in these changing times we have to adapt,” Ross said.
And the times are changing. SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel says that the shift in opinion around criminal justice reform has also contributed to the evolving role of police. “If [police officers and departments] are not recognizing that change is occurring and that the expectation of our function is changing, then [they] are not going to succeed.”
And while the city’s police leadership has adapted to that mentality, it’s not always so easy for police on the ground.
Nicole Bixler spends many of her weekends in Kensington, where she gives out food, clothes, and naloxone with Operation in My Backyard, a small nonprofit that she cofounded. Bixler’s experience with police is anecdotal and mixed. She has seen officers reverse overdoses and others even drop food by the encampments under the bridges before they were evacuated.
But she’s also had negative experiences. “I was cleaning up syringes with another female with my group,“ Bixler recounts. “We were alone on Tusculum Street and there was a male on his face.” The man was lying facedown, seemed unconscious, in the backyard of an abandoned house. “I tried to turn the male over, and we were in the backyard when the police came and said: ‘Get out of here. This is a crime scene.’ ” The officer waited for the ambulance to arrive and administer naloxone. Meanwhile, Bixler was standing a few feet away with naloxone in her hand that she couldn’t use because the officer wouldn’t let her go near the man.
Bixler’s story is emblematic of the tension in policing right now — officers who are trained to investigate crime, manage a crowd, use force, and maintain order are now being asked to view situations through a completely different lens in which the basic tools of policing aren’t helpful. For the man who overdoses, that backyard wasn’t a crime scene, it was his sickbed.
To give officers the tools to respond to these types of situations, police are being offered more educational opportunities to increase their skills. This includes naloxone training, which teaches them how to identify and reverse an overdose; crisis-intervention training to better respond to mental-health crises; and even tourniquet training so they know how to stop severe bleeding.
But we can’t expect officers to be good at everything.
Dealing with overdoses, homelessness, and mental-health crises on top of the daily violence that officers witness also contributes to burnout. “It weighs on you as a human being,” Commissioner Ross explains. “We are relegating these police officers into circumstances that most people can’t even comprehend.”
It raises the question: Why are we asking police officers to deal with situations that aren’t criminal in nature?
If, for some officers, the transition from an enforcer of the law to a pseudo-social worker/paramedic is not a welcome one, if the added tasks contribute to burnout, if training is costly, and if officers aren’t the best-trained people to be on the frontline of social issues such as homelessness and widespread addiction, then maybe it is time to restructure policing and to divert more resources toward more appropriate responders.
“What distinguishes the police from other government workers is their ability and authorization to use violence,” explains Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College. "While [police] may attempt to solve things through dialogue initially, at the end of the day they will turn to the use or threat of violence as the ultimate way to solve a problem.”
Looking back at the clash in Suburban Station, a trained social worker might have been able to engage the homeless people who were sleeping in Suburban Station in a way that a police officer couldn’t have. Even if they’d refused to leave, without the implicit threat of force that comes with every police interaction, it is possible that violence might not have erupted at all.
What if we could have deployed social workers, peer-recovery specialists, and mental-health experts instead of police officers that night? What if those people could respond instead of police to the many situations that occur daily throughout Philadelphia where arrest and force aren’t the appropriate tactic?
Chief Nestel hopes to get there.
He says that for some circumstances, “instead of the police responding, wouldn’t it be great to have a mental-health delegate responding?” As a first step, SEPTA is hiring a mental-health professional to respond to some calls with SEPTA police. “Ideally I would love them to go themselves, and we’re watching on camera to make sure that they are OK, and we have a police officer on the mezzanine level in case they are needed, but the police wouldn’t even have to respond.”
Nestel’s idea is achievable. It is only a matter of reallocating resources in a way that reflects our priorities.