SEPTA Cop Cleared in Fatal October Encounter

SEPTA officials say an officer won't be disciplined over a struggle that ended with a man's death. They also say threats have been made against the officer's life.

Still from surveillance video released by SEPTA police today of a struggle that ended in the death of Omar Lopez.

Still from surveillance video released by SEPTA police today from an October incident that ended in the death of Omar Lopez.

A transit cop who Tasered a Kensington man 10 times during a controversial encounter last fall won’t face any internal disciplinary charges, SEPTA Police Chief Tom Nestel announced today.

Omar Lopez, 24, died after a chaotic struggle with the officer, who attempted to arrest him for arguing with another man at SEPTA’s Huntingdon Station on October 26th. Questions initially centered on whether the numerous shocks from the SEPTA cop’s Taser played a role in Lopez’s death, but the city Medical Examiner’s Office in January ruled that Lopez died from an overdose of PCP.

Nestel reviewed a summary of the Internal Affairs investigation into the incident during a press conference at SEPTA’s Center City headquarters. It was an attempt, he said, at bolstering people’s faith in the police department. The report revisits the entire encounter, step-by-step. (Read the full report below.) 

More than five minutes of video footage of the struggle — which lasted for about eight minutes in total — also was released, along with audio snippets of the officer attempting to call for help, while police radio dispatchers struggle to pinpoint his location.

But Nestel reneged on an earlier promise to identify the transit cop because a death threat had been made against the officer. Danny Gonzalez, a 38-year-old man from Minersville, Schuylkill County, was charged on March 2nd with harassment and making terroristic threats.

Nestel said Gonzalez has ties to Philadelphia and asked for a photo of the officer on Facebook. Gonzalez allegedly wanted to “take out” the cop, and also posted a photo on Facebook of an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, he said.

The transit cop did not violate any SEPTA policies by using his Taser 10 times in “drive stuns,” which involve pressing the device directly against a person’s body, Nestel said. Six of the stuns lasted for one second each. One lasted as long as five seconds; another lasted four seconds, and two others lasted for two seconds each.

Lopez was 5-foot-9 and 189 pounds, while the officer was 5-foot-6 and 155 pounds. The grainy, black-and-white video footage clearly shows both rolling across the pavement in front of the station. The frame is occasionally lit with small flashes of light, indicating the Taser had been deployed.

While the officer isn’t facing any discipline, Nestel said a SEPTA police sergeant who arrived at the scene that morning was disciplined for telling the officer that Aria Health’s Frankford campus was the closest hospital. The 3-mile drive took seven to nine minutes; by the time the SEPTA cop arrived at  Aria Health, Lopez was unresponsive.

Temple University Hospital’s Episcopal campus is less than a mile from the Huntingdon station. It’s unclear if Lopez would have survived the overdose if he’d been transported to Episcopal. Nestel said the sergeant was also disciplined for not obtaining identities and statements from eyewitnesses at the scene. Nestel declined to specify the sergeant’s punishment.

The incident has led to some internal changes. Now, when transit cops transport a victim or suspect to a hospital, SEPTA communications officials will verify if the officers have chosen the closest available hospital.

To avoid future instances of dispatchers not knowing where transit cops are at any given time, officers are now required to radio their location whenever they get out of their cruisers for work-related reasons. Nestel said the department plans to add GPS technology to newer police vehicles, and revamp its subway communications system so city police officers and firefighters will able to use their radio equipment below ground.

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