Is This Top Philly Cop the Answer to America’s Post-Ferguson Police Problem?

Meet Thomas Nestel, a police chief who wants to fight crime and protect the Constitution.

SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel III at his Market Street office. | Joel Mathis

SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel III at his Market Street office. | Joel Mathis

On Monday night, as much of the country reeled at news there would be no indictment of the police officer who shot an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri, SEPTA Police Chief Thomas J. Nestel III did something unexpected: He actively, publicly celebrated Philadelphia’s protesters — some of whom were in a pretty dire anti-police mood.

He started the evening by tweeting a link to the ACLU, spent the next few hours accompanying marchers as they made their way to City Hall, and generally offered words of encouragement — as long as folks stayed peaceful.

“Protestors have arrived at City Hall,” he tweeted at one point. “Peaceful protestors + Professional police = Successful democracy. Well done Philadelphia!”

“Not going to lie – never thought I’d see an officer tweet out an ACLU link,” one follower responded. “Is hell freezing over at long last?”

“The ACLU and I have a lot in common,” Nestel tweeted back. “We both want people to understand their Rights and we both protect the Constitution.”

It was an amazing, laudable performance. On a night when civil-police relations could’ve plummeted to a new low — and in some parts of the country, they did — Nestel sailed merrily along, letting the occasional “fuck the police!” chant roll off his back and encouraging everybody’s best behavior by displaying his own.

And all of this was entirely in character: Philly’s digerati already know Nestel as a congenial presence on Twitter (he is, in fact, nominated for a Pen & Pencil Club award for his social media savvy) and he led the pack of local agencies toward the use of body cameras as a way to gather evidence while encouraging officers to be on their best behavior. Police chiefs often pay lip service to engaging communities and protecting civil liberties; Nestel’s actions actually seem to support those words.

It’s vital that we hold police accountable for crossing civil liberties lines when those lines are crossed. But we might also ask: How do we make more police like Chief Nestel? How do we make more officers who see the lines as worthy of protection instead of boundaries to be challenged and fudged?

“I think there are a lot like me out there. I guess it’s how we bring them to the surface.” Nestel said Wednesday morning during a short interview at his office on the fourth floor of SEPTA’s Market Street headquarters. (He keeps a copy of The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook on a shelf.) He added:  “We’re not ogres. We love being police officers and protecting people.”

That said, Nestel appears to have an unusual goal for a police chief: “If you put 10 people in a room and said, ‘Who is the premiere group of people for protecting the Constitution?’ I’m afraid those people would say the ACLU. I want them to say the police.”

NESTEL, 52, HAS THE policing bona fides to give him credibility on these issues. He grew up in Philly, is a fourth-generation cop and — standing at 6 foot 6 — could be an intimidating presence if he chose to be. (He played soccer in high school and says he didn’t get his growth spurt until after graduation.) He spent 22 years in the Philadelphia Police Department, rising to the rank of staff inspector, then left to become chief of police in Upper Moreland Township. He took the reins at SEPTA in 2012.

Nestel also has a reputation for unusual probity: When we talked on Wednesday he was coming off a one-day self-suspension from work. (Nestel said nothing of this to me.) Why? He has a policy that accidents involving SEPTA-owned vehicles be reviewed by a board of inquiry. If it’s found that the accident was preventable, that employee receives a letter of reprimand. After a minor fender-bender in which he backed into a pole behind SEPTA headquarters recently — “The pole was not at fault,” a SEPTA spokesperson observed — Nestel imposed the harsher-than-called-for punishment upon himself.

Of course, it might be argued that he has such a cheerful attitude on civil liberties because of his department’s limited jurisdiction — there aren’t many murders to solve on SEPTA, nor too many reasons to knock down doors while fearing the possibility of armed assailants on the other side.

“I’ve had that attitude in every position I’ve worked in,” Nestel said. “The Constitution doesn’t stop at the El or the subway. The police are the group that’s going to have the most effect on people’s freedom. That message doesn’t change, regardless of where you’re a police executive.”

Thus the body cameras: Nestel said his department is testing out three different models right now and crafting policy for how cameras will be used. Studies have shown that public complaints against police and use-of-force reports drop dramatically when departments adopt the cameras.

“I think the police and the community are on the same page on this. I think body cameras will strengthen the bond between communities and the police,” Nestel said. “The police officers who are using them are completely sold.”

If whispers around town are correct, Nestel could carry his civil libertarian attitude with him back to the Philly Police Department. He’s considered a possible replacement for Commissioner Charles Ramsey whenever Ramsey is ready to leave the job.

“I think Commissioner Ramsey has done unbelievable transformational work in the Philadelphia Police Department, and I say that as a guy who was in the department for many years. I consider him as a guy I watch and learn from,” Nestel said. “So hopefully he’ll never retire.”

Despite events in Ferguson — and despite a steady diet of headlines suggesting that all is not necessarily well between Philadelphia and its police department — Nestel says the police-civilian divide isn’t actually all that wide here. As proof, he points to Monday’s protests, and to the extraordinary efforts by Philly Police under the command of Chief Inspector Joe Sullivan to ensure Monday’s event was a march instead of a confrontation.

“Is everything great? There’s probably always going to be strain between government and its citizens,” Nestel said. “But it’s our job to smooth that out, and make sure our job is protecting the Constitution.”

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.