‘Getting shot,’ Hepatitis and now, coronavirus, SEPTA police face new risks

Transit police near City Hall. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Transit police near City Hall. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

SEPTA reduced service, but their police force has no plans to do the same.

“We still have people waiting for the train or buses,” said SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel. “We have a responsibility for security of all the sites and all the vehicles there. There won’t be a time where we’re not going to have [anything] for the transit police.”

But remaining in the line of duty comes with risks that officers are grappling with as the number of confirmed positive coronavirus diagnoses in the region grows. As first responders for the city’s transit service, close contact with the public is a part of the job, said Troy Parham, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Transit Police.

“First, it was the risk of getting shot or the risk of getting hepatitis,” he said. “Well, now you’ve got the risk of possibly getting the coronavirus. But I don’t see a change in the way they’re doing their job.”

Parham says union leadership will request a meeting with SEPTA officials to discuss officer concerns, which includes bringing the virus home to their families.

The transit police force of 261 officers operated Tuesday with five officers out.

Three of the five officers called out sick and have not been tested for coronavirus. The remaining two stayed home after contact with an officer from another jurisdiction who tested positive, according to Nestel.

“We’re trying to do as much as we can to ensure that when an officer gets it, it’s not going to spread through our workforce and wipe us out,” Nestel said.

The two officers who self-quarantined came into contact with an officer from Lower Providence Township in Montgomery County, who they later found out tested positive, according to spokesperson Andrew Busch.

SEPTA’s police force is taking a number of other safety precautions. The agency split up two-officer patrols at stations to maintain distance between them and is having officers bring their equipment directly from home to the station, eliminating the use for locker rooms.

Officers will no longer check-in for roll calls at their precinct or unit location. Instead, “instructions and training materials” will be passed on through “electronic means,” and officers will report to their beat.

The force also rented 30 cars so officers can remain mobile as the authority reduces service in the region. Regional Rail service now runs at 75% normal service, and SEPTA officials expect to announce a reduced schedule for city transit this weekend. The changes are in response to low ridership and expected staffing issues.

Ridership numbers for Monday showed a drastic decline. Regional Rail dropped by 68%, while city transit slipped to 46%. Nestel says the rented vehicles are also in anticipation of staffing issues. If SEPTA police are short-staffed somewhere, they should be able to get there faster in cars than by relying on reduced train service.

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