(UPDATED) Here Is Why Police Don’t Always Go Where The Crime Is


[Updated: 2:22 pm] From the “ask a silly question” department…

When we posted this story this morning, we asked what we thought was a sensible question: Why is stationing police where the crime takes place such a revolutionary event? Why isn’t it the default tactic of police departments, instead of (seemingly) a recent innovation?

Thomas Nestel III, SEPTA’s chief of transit police, answered that question in a letter we received this afternoon. He gave permission to quote it in its entirety.

I read your posting on PhillyMag regarding the change in the Transit Police deployment.

In response to your question regarding why such a strategy hasn’t been in place before I would say that police departments are constantly engaged in the push/pull of need versus desire.

When policing a community, every resident wants to see a beat cop on their block. The reality is that the police resources need to be strategically placed where they can prevent crime. If no crime exists in an area or there are no indicators that crime is likely to rear its ugly head, then the police resources should not be expected there.

The same applies for transportation authorities. If a problem does not exist or is unlikely to begin occurring at a station, then a transit police officer should not be assigned there. Riders and employees expect to see an officer at every station no matter how much disorder occurs at that location. The belief of the average citizen is that the presence of the police will ensure that low problem locations stay that way.

The pressure exerted from that type of thinking has resulted in the transit police being evenly distributed throughout the system so that visibility was the goal with prevention of incidents and apprehension of offenders being a secondary mission.

I am taking the position that officers should be in areas where evidence exists showing a need for their attention. I am glad you support that decision because many people do not. Most folks want to see that cop on their block even if there hasn’t been a crime or call for service in six months.

I hope I was able to provide an adequate explanation for you.

Have a safe day!

And that makes sense. There’s a pull between what’s effective and what’s popular, and police forces generally have to balance the two. In which case: Congratulations to Chief Nestel for leaning towards “effectiveness.” It’s still a little silly that the incentives lean away from it, but we’re glad he’s willing to take the chance.

[Original: 11:22 am] NBC 10 reports on SEPTA’s new “tactical unit”:

Each day, the unit will analyze crime complaints and service calls from the previous day across the system. Tactical unit officers will then head out those high-crime locations and saturate the area.

SEPTA Transit Police Chief Thomas Nestel, III says the unit’s primary goal will be to reduce crime and provide peace of mind to its 830,000 weekly riders.

“I want to address the problems,” he said. “It doesn’t do anybody any good to see cops in areas where there are no problems.”

This is something Philadelphia Police have done in recent years, to apparent success. But it does raise the question: Why is it so groundbreaking for police to spend their time where crime usually happens? Isn’t that kind of a no-brainer? What are we missing?