SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel on Body Cameras and Cheese Sandwiches

One of Philly's most Twitter-friendly cops wants to promote civil liberties — and have fun doing so.

On Twitter, at least, SEPTA Police Chief Thomas J. Nestel might be the most gregarious police officer in the city, virtually palling around with journalists and regular citizens alike. (He runs neck and neck, digitally, with Philly Police Detective Joseph Murray.) He regularly posts photos of fare-jumpers being caught by his officers, appended with the #cheesesandwich hashtag — the cheese sandwich being what they serve you as a meal in jail.

But Nestel also takes his job seriously. He recently announced a pilot program to put body cameras on his officers — a move that should cheer civil libertarians who point out that similar programs have resulted in steep drops in complaints against officers where such systems are already used.

“I’d like to see a reduction in the incidents where we have to respond to resistance. I’d like to see a reduction in the number of complaints,” he told Philly Mag recently. “And I think that this would also be a tremendous tool to help us reduce court overtime, because with audio and video evidence, offenders are going to be more likely to plead guilty and minimize the number of times that we have to send officers to court.”

First of all, you said that you’re going to start a pilot program that’s going to put body cameras on your officers who are working the transit system. How is that system going to work?

The ones we’re testing right now are dual-purpose cameras. It’s actually a microphone for handheld radios that every officer has, and in that microphone is a camera. Now, we’re going to try other models, too, to see if they’re better, but it’d be nice if we were able to find one that wasn’t an additional piece of equipment, because our Batman utility belts are already kind of crowded.

The goal is that in every contact with the public, the officer would activate the camera, the camera would then video and audiotape the contact, and the officer, as soon as possible, would notify the citizen that they’re being audio taped, and just that in itself we think is going to have an effect on encouraging better behavior toward the police and better behavior toward the public.

Let me ask about that, because I’m not struck that the SEPTA police get very many complaints filed against them. Is this a problem that you feel like you have to deal with?

Well, I’d like to say thank you. But unfortunately, I haven’t worked in a police department where complaints aren’t an issue. Although many of our complaints are already resolved by video evidence, audio evidence would really enhance our ability to determine whether an officer acted improperly. So yes, we do get complaints, and yes, it is a concern, a concern enough that the cameras would be a great benefit to us.

You raise the other portion of what I was going to ask, which is: There’s a fair amount of video coverage within the SEPTA system already. They’re on buses, they’re in the subways, they’re in the stations in a great many cases, and I know this in part because I follow your Twitter feed, and I get to see all those cheese sandwich photos that you post. So that suggests to me that you already have fairly decent video coverage of this. Is the audio component the additional part here?

It is. That’s the bonus for us. A lot of our contacts — or at least, a lot of our complaints — are in the lack of professionalism category. And that’s tough to tell on a camera. You know, you’d like to hear the conversation that occurs between two people in order to make a judgment on whether or not something was inappropriate. So that’s kind of critical for us, and when we have a use of force incident, although you see on video what occurs, you don’t see what precipitates it. You don’t hear the threat made by the person to the police officer, you just see the police officer reacting to defend himself before an attack occurs. It would be wonderful to have the audio evidence that shows what precipitated that physical contact between a police officer and a citizen.

How expensive are these systems?

There’s a span of prices. The ones we’re testing right now are about $300 apiece, but they can go up to $1,500 apiece. And we’re trying several different models. I haven’t made a decision as to whether or not we’re actually going to do it, but the pilot program will give us enough data and some real life experience to see if it’s worthwhile.

What is your timeline for making a decision?

I would like to make the decision in the next three months.

And if you do, how are you going to pay for that equipment?

There’s a variety of ways. One is drug forfeiture funds. … I have some ideas on how this can be used for homeland security issues, so we’d be looking at homeland security funds. So it’s all outside funding sources that I’d be trying to tap into.

Final question. You are kind of famous in Philadelphia Twitter for your love of showing pictures of perpetrators, and the #cheesesandwich hashtag. That’s a different kind of face than what police officers often show the community. Why did you decide to kind of put that out there playfully like that?

I think it’s important to have a connection with the community. I think it’s important to have credibility with the community. And I also think it’s important that the community understands that police officers are just as human as they are, and we have pretty decent senses of humor. I think that it’s a great way to let the public know about the work that the transit police are doing. I’d like to think that we’re marketing the product better. And as we use a little bit of humor, I think we lure people in to see our message. And our message is that if you commit a crime on SEPTA, you’re going to get caught, and we’re going to have pictures of you.

Anything else you want me to know, sir?

I’m exceptionally tall, and I eat an awful lot.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.