An effort to remove people sleeping in Philadelphia’s Suburban Station on a below-freezing night in January escalated into a melee in which SEPTA transit officers resorted to using pepper spray and swinging batons.
Transit police didn’t use force until they were under assault, said Thomas Nestel, SEPTA’s police chief, and ultimately needed backup from Philadelphia police to quell what was described as a mini-riot. The incident has fed fear among the homeless and left advocates questioning whether officers should have been moving people out on a frigid night.
“To rise to that level was shocking,” said Sister Mary Scullion, executive director for Project HOME, a nonprofit that provides homeless services. “And inappropriate against people who were only asking why are they being put out.”
SEPTA police clear Suburban Station’s halls every night around midnight to ensure security and make space for cleaning crews, Nestel said. Officers tell people sleeping or lingering in the station that they must leave. Typically, officers direct people who need shelter to a Department of Behavioral Health facility at 15th and Market Streets. The people in Suburban Station late at night say officers can be brusque, but a physical confrontation is an anomaly.
“I’m quite certain this is not their M.O. in asking people to leave the concourse,” said Marsha Cohen, executive director of the nonprofit Homeless Advocacy Project, a legal aid organization. The transit police “are not the nicest, that’s for sure, but they’ve been trained with this population and they understand that everyone needs to be treated with dignity and respect.”
About 12:30 a.m on Jan. 15, when officers asked people sleeping on the station floor to leave, some became physical with officers, Nestel said.
“People were attacking police officers,” he said. “They were dealing with folks who wanted to stay in the station and were told that they couldn’t, and then charged at them.”
One of the people involved said she argued with officers because of the frigid temperatures outside.
“We told them it’s 28 degrees,” said Tracy Amador, 48, who described being pepper sprayed and hit with batons. “We’re not going outside.”
About 10 SEPTA officers responded, Nestel said, along with a number of Philadelphia police. Two people are charged in the confrontation. Both are accused of assaulting an officer, and one faces charges of inciting a riot and vandalism – glass was broken in one of the station’s doors. More charges may come, the chief said. SEPTA police’s internal affairs reviewed the incident, which included watching video, and concluded officers acted appropriately. SEPTA declined to share video, saying it was the subject of an ongoing investigation.
Both Project Home and the office of City Council member Jannie Blackwell received accounts of the incident, but some of those reporting it declined to give their names. Another man who witnessed the incident declined to be identified for this story out of fear of reprisals.
Amador, who has been homeless since 2016, described standing in front of the exit to the station near a post office to discourage people from leaving. “Police were cattling us through the door,” she said.
She suffered a black eye and bruises on her body, said staffers from Project HOME who saw her the day after the incident. Amador said her teeth were also damaged. She has not been charged, but Nestel said she still may be. His officers knew her because of medical problems she has had, and she was once escorted out, but not arrested, after being found in a construction zone. She also has unrelated charges pending against her, according to Municipal Court records.
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No ambulances were called after the conflict, Nestel said. Officers experienced no serious injuries. Nestel stood by his officers’ conduct, saying that “no force is ever pretty” but that his personnel have the right to protect themselves.
“We’re not running a Gestapo force that is beating people and throwing them out because they’re poor, and we’re not going to be,” he said.
Suburban Station has the highest concentration of officers of any of the city’s transit hubs.
That January night was designated a code blue, Scullion said, which means temperatures were so low that additional resources were being made available by the city Office of Homeless Services. Philadelphia has about 5,700 people without permanent housing, but of those, less than 1,000 are living on the street. On such nights, she said, the priority for social service agencies is finding people who are exposed to the elements. Seeking people who are in sheltered locations, like a train station, is secondary. The organization would prefer police grant sanctuary to people in the station on cold nights, said Carol Thomas, Project HOME’s director of homeless services.
Nestel said that isn’t possible.
“When we close the station, we close it for a business reason,” he said. “There are no more trains. There are no more employees at the station.”
Police asked people that night if they wanted help finding shelter as they cleared the hallway, Nestel said, and people declined. But Thomas said police have called her organization , and they have sent a van to the station to offer shelter to people being removed. Police should have done that before the situation escalated, she said.
“The key to this whole issue is that it never should have happened,” she said, “that it was preventable.”
Police acknowledged many of the people lingering in the station late at night have mental health conditions, and the department has cooperated with Project Home to create a list of close to 70 people who are in urgent need of mental health assistance, Scullion said. Half of SEPTA’s 270 transit officers have received training to interact with people suffering from mental health. The department is working toward training all officers. They are also working with the city to assign behavioral health experts to the station.
The eruption of tensions came as police and social service agencies navigate the murky, ambiguous subculture that comes to the station long after the rush hour commuters are gone. Philadelphia has 12,000 beds available to assist people who are homeless, and in winter months about 2,900 of those are open to people in immediate need of a place to sleep. There are those who, due to addiction, mental illness, or preference, refuse to seek aid.
Amador said she doesn’t receive welfare or food stamps, and won’t use shelters. “I would rather sleep in the street because I’m free to do whatever I want to do,” she said.
Others have homes but come to the station to get high. City officials describe some people as “predators.”
“We’re seeing people who are dealing drugs and probably engaged in some other kinds of activities,” said Eva Gladstein, deputy managing director of Health and Human Services.
Suburban Station’s long, crooked corridors splay out from its cavernous art deco central concourse like the legs of a spider, and scattered along them late at night are dozens of people. About 11 p.m. on a recent night, two huddled in the doorway of a closed shop. Across from them, another person sprawled face down on the floor, the brittle contents of a self-rolled cigarette scattered beside him. One crew sat in a circle on the floor beneath the bright, harsh lights. Another slouched against a maintenance vehicle and chatted. A man nearby appeared on the verge of falling asleep on his feet. The air carried echoing laughter and smoke with a spicy tang, likely K2, a smokable material sprayed with chemicals described as synthetic marijuana, that people in the station readily admit to using. People defecate and urinate on the floors.
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During much of the past year, the number of indigent people in the station had been declining, Scullion said, but a head count on a cold night in January recorded 200 homeless people there, roughly equivalent to the same time last year.
SEPTA police face the twin pressures of being sensitive to a vulnerable population and keeping one of the city’s busiest transit hubs clean and safe.
“There are competing schools of thought,” Nestel said. “One is that the station should be a shelter for people who don’t have some place to live or some place to go, and the other is the station should have no one in it that doesn’t relate to mass transit.”
SEPTA attempted to find a middle ground last year when it worked with Project Home to create the Hub of Hope, a 11,000-square-foot facility in the station that provides an array of assistance. It’s well used but closes at 7 p.m. And Scullion noted the people lying on Suburban Station’s floors late at night may not be the same people who turn to Hub of Hope for help.
“There’s just a lot of frustration down there,” Scullion said, “from every angle.”