Putting out the fire on hot spots

Posted on March 12, 2013 by Heather Redfern - Also by this author

SEPTA Police are maintaining a presence at the intersection of Somerset and Kensington and at Somerset Station.
SEPTA Police are maintaining a presence at the intersection of Somerset and Kensington and at Somerset Station.

When Chief Thomas Nestel III re-joined the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) Police Department in August 2012, he set out to identify the top “hot spot” served by the agency.

Every city has its “hot spots” — happening places where many gather to “hang out” around the clock. Unfortunately, sometimes these locations aren’t places one should go for a safe, fun time and the dangerous and often illegal activities that occur at these sites have a far-reaching, negative impact on the neighboring community.

The corner of Somerset and Kensington, outside of SEPTA’s Somerset Station had long been a hangout and hot spot for illegal activity.
 
The corner of Somerset and Kensington, outside of SEPTA’s Somerset Station had long been a hangout and hot spot for illegal activity.
 

The area surrounding SEPTA’s Somerset Station on the eastern end of its Market-Frankford Line has been called “Zombie land” by its residents. It's a place Nestel has referred to as “an outdoor market for nefarious activity.” From drug deals and prostitution to trash-strewn streets, the intersection of Kensington Avenue and Somerset Street was far from inviting and many neighbors would prefer to go out of their way to board the train and buses at other stops and stations than deal with the ne'er-do-wells that had taken over the Kensington corner.

Prior to the SEPTA Police initiative at Somerset, used needles and other drug paraphernalia were commonly found in the station’s stairwells.
Prior to the SEPTA Police initiative at Somerset, used needles and other drug paraphernalia were commonly found in the station’s stairwells.

An analysis of the agency’s and Philadelphia Police Department’s service calls and crime stats, the Philadelphia Fire Department’s hospital calls (mostly drug overdoses) and SEPTA maintenance reports of large numbers of exposed needles, drug paraphernalia, and other trash littering the streets and station stairwells put Somerset in the number one slot.

Prior to the launch of the Somerset sweep in late November 2012, Nestel and SEPTA Police officers spoke to every business owner on a two-block stretch surrounding the station to identify specific problems. SEPTA conducted surveillance to determine key locations and players and coordinated with Philadelphia’s 24th Police District on law enforcement efforts and with city offices for resources such as rehab facilities and social service organizations that might be willing to offer assistance.   

“We had total buy-in from the authority, from Philadelphia Police and from the community,” said Nestel. “Everyone was ready for change to come to this corridor.”

In the initial stages of the program, 10 to 15 officers from across SEPTA’s seven patrol zones per shift were assigned to Somerset Station and one square block surrounding the station 24 hours a day. Due to “incredible feedback” from the community, the radius was expanded to three blocks around the station.

The success of the Somerset clean-up initiative has made local residents feel safer when using the station and when walking in the surrounding area.
 
The success of the Somerset clean-up initiative has made local residents feel safer when using the station and when walking in the surrounding area.
 
Just three months into the program, there have been almost 200 arrests and citations, two guns confiscated and, according to Nestel, “a phenomenal amount” of narcotics seized. The number of officers patrolling the station and neighborhood has also been scaled back.  

“The station is clean and bright and we have a safe corridor to the station and the multiple bus routes that serve the area,” said Nestel. “We are watching and know that not only is crime down at Somerset, it is not being displaced to other locations in that neighborhood, either. Philadelphia Police have ramped up their narcotics efforts and we have a foothold that we are maintaining.”

A goal assessment of the program will include a ridership analysis to determine if the clean-up efforts have attracted more customers to use Somerset Station. This assessment will take place during summer 2013.   
SEPTA’s Somerset program is the result of what Nestel described as “typical hot spot policing.” The agency used data and evidence-based decision making to set a plan of action. The key to the success of any program like this, though, is complete organizational commitment to the plan.

“Not only were all members of our force on board with improving the location, but the entire authority — from top administration to facilities and maintenance — dedicated resources to our efforts,” said Nestel.

The turnaround at Somerset happened faster than Nestel estimated, and while still devoting 24/7 manpower to that region, Nestel and SEPTA police have been able to identify and move on to the next hot spot: 52nd Street in West Philadelphia. With continued community and organizational support, SEPTA expects this second initiative to be as successful.      

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