“If you commit a crime on SEPTA, you will be caught.” Those were the words of Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) Police Chief Thomas Nestel when video surveillance footage of a suspect wanted for a robbery and shooting at the North Philadelphia Broad Street Line (BSL) station was released to local media.
Just days after the crystal-clear image of the man was made public, Shawn Walker was arrested by Philadelphia Police and charged with robbery, aggravated assault and related charges. Walker is also a suspect in an armed robbery at a nearby grocery store.
In September, 15-year old Darryl Lanier was arrested and charged as an adult with attempted murder for allegedly opening fire at a BSL car, injuring two student passengers. The incident video was so perfect that Philadelphia Police was able to take it to local schools for a quick ID. Lanier’s parents turned him in to the authorities.
Perhaps the most dramatic and compelling of these “caught on tape” incidents occurred in June 2011, when two men with assault rifles opened fire on a stopped SEPTA Route 47 bus, summoned to the scene by a passenger who was upset that a fellow rider admonished her for spanking her child. In all, six of the seven defendants pled guilty to charges, including attempted murder, aggravated assault and related offenses (the seventh was held for trial). The charges and convictions in this case were based on the video from seven cameras on that bus — our “best witness.”
The agency has 10 to 12 cameras on each the 343 cars on the BSL and Market-Frankford Line (MFL) and 12 to 48 cameras at BSL, MFL and downtown Philadelphia Regional Rail stations. By early 2013, SEPTA’s entire bus fleet of almost 1,400 will be camera-equipped. The 120 new Silverliner V Regional Rail train cars all have the technology to use cameras. Nestel also has images of wanted individuals sent to SEPTA officers’ smartphones, allowing them to easily search for suspects while on the beat. The video produced by the vehicle and station cameras has proven highly valuable to SEPTA and Philadelphia Police in their efforts to apprehend criminals and to educate the public on how to be aware of their surroundings and protect their valuables from theft.
During the same week that SEPTA surveillance footage was used to capture the alleged actor of a violent crime, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams announced that eight people were charged with insurance fraud, criminal conspiracy and other related charges for filing false injury claims against SEPTA regarding a 2009 bus accident. In that incident, the left mirror of a stopped SEPTA bus was clipped by the right mirror of a passing armored car. The armored car had no damage; the bus received only a scratch.
Yet earlier this year, SEPTA received claims from eight individuals, all represented by the same attorney and all stating that they were injured in the accident. In total, the complainants were seeking about $80,000 for their medical bills. They might have been paid for their “suffering” had SEPTA’s bus cameras not shown that two of the individuals on the bus were not as injured as they had filed and six of the claimants were not on board the bus at the time of the accident.
In October 2011, SEPTA and the Philadelphia DA's Office launched a campaign to stop fraudulent injury claims by highlighting the growing role surveillance video is playing in exposing defrauders. In public service announcements, actual bus video features riders acting out injuries after SEPTA buses are lightly tapped by other vehicles — impacts so minor, most passengers aren't aware an accident has occurred until they see the bus operator begin post-collision procedures. And, some claimants aren't even passengers.
In fiscal year 2011, there were 5,219 claims filed against SEPTA; in FY2012 that number dropped to 4,656. The claim payout for both years was about $40 million. If FY2013 continues at its first quarter rate, claims will drop again this year.
Without the videos, these fraudulent claims may have cost transit riders and taxpayers thousands of dollars in injury payouts. Now the payday been denied, and, with the assistance of the DA's Office, these individuals are being held criminally responsible for their actions.
The recent criminal and fraud cases illustrate how important video has become in a new era of crime fighting. Cameras are the extra eyes need to capture criminals and protect passengers and deter crime. The pictures truly are worth a thousand words.
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