SEPTA Video Shows Transit Cop Grabbing Throat of Man Holding Baby

“No, we don’t teach people to grab persons by the throat,” said SEPTA police chief Thomas Nestel at a Friday press conference.

On Friday afternoon, SEPTA police chief Thomas Nestel held a press conference at SEPTA headquarters to address the now-viral bystander video that showed SEPTA police trying to handcuff a man who had a baby in his arms at the Huntingdon stop of the Market-Frankford El on Thursday during rush hour.

Nestel showed reporters SEPTA surveillance footage from inside the train, in which a SEPTA cop, a 16-year veteran with no complaints on his record, is seen talking with the man, who was suspected of having evaded his fare. Nestel said that the officer, in accordance with SEPTA police procedure, was trying to get the man to leave the train but that the man repeatedly refused to comply.

After about five minutes of discussion, the cop can be seen putting a hand on the back of the man’s neck. When the man attempts to shake the officer off, the officer appears to grab his neck and throat and then pushes him up against the side of the train. Asked if this is standard protocol for handling a noncompliant fare evader, Nestel replied: “No, we don’t teach people to grab persons by the throat.”

(SEPTA media relations has not released a separate version of the surveillance footage; we captured the above portion from a Periscope replay of the press conference, where it was projected onto a screen. We will update this story if a higher-quality version becomes available.)

As the video continues, the officer disengages until other SEPTA cops arrive on the scene. A K9 cop eventually places one cuff around the man’s right wrist while he is seated. He is soon convinced to exit the train.

A second surveillance video, taken from the platform, shows another angle on what happened once the man decided to allow police to escort him out of the train with the baby.

“As he exits the door, his cooperation changes,” observed Nestel. “They’re trying to remove the child from him. He does not want to be handcuffed.”

But eventually, police managed to cuff the other wrist, and another passenger on the platform was able to take the child. Nestel says that the man was allowed to call the mother of the child, who came and picked up the girl.

“I saw some talk on social media about kidnapping,” said Nestel. “That’s not true.”

Ultimately the man, whom SEPTA later identified as 20-year-old Ellis Smith, was charged with fare evasion, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest. But Nestel said that his concern is not with what the fare evader did.

“The supervisor of the officer said that there was a conversation this morning about why didn’t he just retreat and step away — there was a small child,” said Nestel. “Jeopardizing safety of a child just isn’t something that we want to do. And the officer felt that if he walked away he thought he would face disciplinary action.”

Nestel confirmed that if a officer engages a fare evader and does not issue a citation, an investigation into the officer’s actions would ensue. “But that’s a failure on my part,” he said. “If he believes he can’t use judgment to step away from a situation that’s spiraling into something that might justify the safety of a child, that’s on me … Force by police is never pleasant to see. Force by police when a person is holding a child is sad and dangerous.”

According to Nestel, the cop and the suspect shook hands and the man admitted that he had acted inappropriately. An internal affairs investigation is underway, but the officer has not been suspended.

Nestel also asked to the public’s help in the investigation — “I’d love to hear from other people on the train who witnessed it,” he said — made it very clear that the investigation is not about the fare evader’s actions.

“It’s not about him,” said Nestel. “This is about us. I’m not going to change how someone in the public deals with the police. I have to change how the police deal with the public.”