Duty-of-Care: Can special purpose agencies keep up with rising crime? (Broad + Liberty)

Cities like Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, L.A., New Orleans, and Washington are seeing skyrocketing violent crime rates with record homicides three years in a row; which have had an outsized impact on the city’s public transportation system, hospitality venues, public facilities, and universities. In recent months, Philadelphia has recorded the first murder of a Temple University Police Officer in history and over three shootings on SEPTA’s two subway lines in just the last two weeks,  including a homicide at the Walnut-Locust stop in upscale Center City. 

As a result, Temple University’s President resigned as safety concerns are impacting parental enrollment decisions. At the same time, SEPTA ridership is suffering as riders voiced their safety concerns with WKYW (CBS3) reporters in their coverage of recent shootings. 

“Do you feel safe taking the subway?” asked CBS reporter Dan Snyder of SEPTA rider Artis Burke of Winfield. “No, no. Because you never know who’s going to attack you.”

One would think that special districts with dedicated police resources would see a lower average crime rate than their municipal counterparts. However, as these agencies are forced to bring their arrests to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, before the same elected judiciary, and house their prisoners in the city’s same overcrowded prison system – the advantage of having focused law enforcement agencies is largely lost. Over time, this creates dire consequences on populations like SEPTA riders and Temple students, because crime concerns decrease the patronage needed to fund the private law enforcement agencies needed to address. 

Agencies like the SEPTA and Temple University Police Departments are considered “special purpose agencies”, who employ fully sworn officers to provide police services for defined entities or areas within another jurisdiction, to include schools, transportation systems, ports, housing authorities, and government buildings. The advantages of establishing police agencies to private authorities is that they can address a wide range of criminal activity, have specialized training in specific regulatory environments, and increase deterrence through a more focused presence. 

At the same time, these quasi-public agencies are designed to relieve the municipal police of the time and resources required to police these subpopulations. While this works in numerous jurisdictions throughout the world, to include cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Boston – the effectiveness of these agencies often depends on how effective prosecutors are in addressing the cases brought by these agencies and how supportive these police agencies’ parent organizations are in supporting them.   

In Philadelphia, the rising crime and low morale in the law enforcement community has had a trickle-down effect on recruiting from the Philadelphia Police Department to agencies like the SEPTA and Temple University Police. These smaller agencies already bore the disadvantages of lower pay. Some candidates saw them as a “stepping-stone” to get the necessary Act 120 police academy certification needed to move on to a more established municipal jurisdiction. In an age where law enforcement risks the increased liability of unlawful termination or politicized prosecution, attrition at the municipal level has created an express lane for candidates into larger agencies with no need for officers to gain experience elsewhere before applying.

In the meantime, violence has become the norm in the SEPTA system and the neighborhoods surrounding the city’s college campuses. While arrests have been made in many of the high-profile shootings plaguing areas like SEPTA and Temple, such arrests do little to quell the concerns of students and riders.

This is because the risk of crime is prevalent, despite what is done to address the criminal afterwards. Unlike reactive investigations, most special purpose policing is based on prevention and deterrence. Therefore, as bail requests get laxer and prosecution policies allow violent criminals to return to the streets to commit more crime, the value of having a uniformed police presence as a deterrent is low.  

One prominent example of this is in Kensington, where a police officer in a marked SEPTA Police car is assigned to be present at the busy station 24-hours a day. Regardless, passers-by in this community — largely heralded as the largest open-air drug market in America — regularly commit a variety of crimes in the immediate presence of this officer on a daily basis. As a key part of SEPTA’s 2024 budget proposal, totaling $1.69 billion, officials classified rider safety as “the top priority,” claiming a ten percent boost to the Transit Police force rank-and-file. 

A ten percent boost to the SEPTA police, according to their own website, can serve to replenish roughly 26 officers to its 260-member force, which polices a whopping 2,200 square-mile service area. Temple and other collegiate agencies have even more concentrated personnel issues. Alec Shaffer, a spokesman for the Temple University Police Association, told Broad + Liberty that “ on any given day, we only have approximately 65-68 patrol officers available for patrol”, which is less than half of SEPTA’s force strength. This means, as was seen in the case of Officer Christopher Fitzgerald, officers ride alone and leave whole sectors without coverage if they must leave the street for arrest processing, training, or sick leave. 

“Its extremely difficult being a temple police officer working short staffed, working hundreds of hours of mandated overtime, while being grossly underpaid to do the same job as every other law enforcement agency in the city,” said Shaffer. “We are not supported by Temple administration with the basic equipment we need to do the job. We have to fundraise to buy new recruits’ flashlights. We don’t have the highest level ballistic vests.” 

Manpower alone is not the issue: there are bigger American cities with lower per-capita crime rates, despite having fewer officers. This is largely due to a better management of the criminal justice system in these jurisdictions. A functioning District Attorney’s Office assigns prosecutors to work specific communities —  like transit systems, public housing projects, or college campuses — to assure a partnership with these delicate ecosystems. At the same time, Sheriff’s Offices in most larger cities assist in arrest booking and processing, so that police officers don’t spend hours off the street with post-arrest paperwork, hospital cases, and prisoner transport.   

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office did not respond to Broad + Liberty’s request for comment for this story.

Therefore, while many special purpose police executives bear the brunt of public scrutiny for the out-of-control crime rates plaguing their communities – questions are raised as to where the arrests that all law state and local law enforcement in Philadelphia are brought for prosecution, and if this bottle-neck is to blame for the carnage on our streets. 

“These are just a few reasons why Temple struggles to retain and recruit police officers,” concludes Shaffer “The solutions are simple, treat your cops as the essential professionals that they are and then we can talk about actually reducing crime.”

A. Benjamin Mannes, MA, CPP, CESP, is a Subject Matter Expert in Security & Criminal Justice Reform based on his own experiences on both sides of the criminal justice system. He has served as a federal and municipal law enforcement officer and was the former Director, Office of Investigations with the American Board of Internal Medicine. @PublicSafetySME