Blame SEPTA, not riders, for woman’s rape on a train

SEPTA was at fault for creating the conditions that would allow something so heinous to take place, WHYY columnist Solomon Jones writes.

A SEPTA police officer stands on the platform of the Somerset stop

A SEPTA police officer stands on the platform of the Somerset stop on the Market-Frankford line. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

I never believed passengers were at fault for not reporting a rape that allegedly took place aboard SEPTA’s Market-Frankford Line. I believed SEPTA was at fault for creating the conditions that would allow something so heinous to take place.

In a story that made national news, Upper Darby Police Superintendent Timothy Bernhardt told The New York Times he was “appalled by those who did nothing to help this woman.” And SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel told reporters “people were holding their phone up in the direction of this woman being attacked.”

The narrative that emerged, thanks to those police accounts, was that the passengers should be blamed not only for watching and doing nothing, but also for filming the incident on their cell phones. That narrative made national news. That is, until Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer, who is handling the criminal investigation, told reporters that it is “simply not true” that several SEPTA passengers sat and filmed the attack rather than intervening or calling police. Stollsteimer went so far as to call it “misinformation.”

That simple statement turns the focus back to where it should have been all along — on SEPTA. The truth is, SEPTA is responsible for keeping its riders safe. Not only did SEPTA fail to do so, but two police chiefs made statements that put targets on the backs of people who paid their fare to ride the public transit system. Instead, those riders witnessed an alleged crime, and were then publicly shamed by the very people who should have protected them.

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The alleged incident began around 9:15 p.m. on Oct. 13, when the victim boarded the train at the Frankford Transportation Center. Police say 35-year-old Fiston Ngoy sat next to the victim on the train and allegedly began groping her as she tried to push him away. The groping persisted for more than 30 minutes, according to security camera footage reviewed by police. Ngoy allegedly raped the victim at 9:52 p.m., and was pulled off the victim around 10 p.m. by responding officers at 69th Street Terminal. Ngoy has since been charged with rape and numerous related offenses.

And though the case may seem to be open and shut, I have many questions: Why was there no police officer walking through the train from 9:15 to almost 10 p.m.? Was a police officer even assigned to the train? Is there a regular police patrol assigned to the Market-Frankford El during the time that the attack took place? What is the patrol policy for the Market-Frankford El?

I posed those questions to SEPTA, and in a statement, spokesman Andrew Busch said he’d have to defer questions regarding timeline to the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office. He did, however, answer some questions about police policy.

“SEPTA Transit Police have regular and frequent patrols along stations and trains on the Market-Frankford Line during all hours of operation, which is approximately 4:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m.,” Busch said. “Earlier this year, SEPTA also added unarmed security guards from Allied Universal at some Market-Frankford Line stations. We are assessing that effort now and determining whether we may add more guards.”

Of course, that doesn’t tell us why, if there are such “regular and frequent patrols,” no police officers or security guards passed through the train where a passenger was allegedly being sexually harassed, then sexually assaulted, then raped over the course of 45 minutes.

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And while Busch said that SEPTA is also going to launch a new unit within its police department to monitor the system’s 28,000 surveillance cameras and dispatch police to areas as issues arise, that system should have been up and running before this alleged rape took place.

That’s because the Market-Frankford Line passes through Kensington, an area so thoroughly inundated with drugs and violence that SEPTA had to shut down one of its stations to clean out the used needles and human waste that had rendered an elevator inoperable.

The area is dangerous, and according to those who know public transit best, the culture of open drug use, debauchery, and wanton violence has made its way onto SEPTA’s transit system.

According to Willie Brown, president of Transport Workers Union Local 234, SEPTA’s city system has been unsafe for a long time — not only for the passengers, but also for the workers who clean the stations and collect the fares.

In a WURD Radio interview, Brown told me cashiers on the Broad Street Subway and the Market-Frankford Line are afraid because they often have to unlock their fare booths in the pre-dawn hours with no security. He said a union maintenance worker was beaten while trying to work on a station platform. He said another had to pay off drug dealers in order to gain access to a station to do his work.

Brown conceded there aren’t enough transit police officers to provide the security that’s needed, and said that he wasn’t surprised to learn an alleged rape had occurred on the Market-Frankford El. But Brown believes that SEPTA’s system is so unsafe that he won’t let a young relative who is a high school sophomore ride the system by himself.

That lack of safety is one of the reasons SEPTA’s unionized workers have authorized a strike if they don’t have a new contract by midnight on Oct. 31, Brown said. Unfortunately, many of SEPTA’s city riders have no such option, because they don’t have alternate forms of transportation.

The passengers should have never been blamed for the alleged rape that took place on the Market-Frankford Line. The blame falls squarely on SEPTA, whose city-based system lacks sufficient security, while its regional rails, which run through more affluent suburban areas, are cleaner and infinitely safer.

We must hold SEPTA’s feet to the fire for allowing its security to deteriorate to the point where someone could be raped on the train. Then we must do everything possible to make sure it never happens again.

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