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Public safety / Transportation

SEPTA now has its own team of cops-turned-data scientists

SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel credits a 25 percent drop in violent crime to a new data-driven strategy.

Since he became SEPTA Police Chief two years ago, Thomas Nestel has been using data to run his department. Now he has his own team of data scientists, plucked straight from the SEPTA Police Department.

The results have been 'shocking.'

Backed by a $20,000 federal grant, SEPTA Police partnered with Temple University to train eight SEPTA cops in crime mapping and analysis last May, as part of a program called D3 (Data-Driven Decision-Making). The Philadelphia Police Department ran a similar, larger-scale program with Temple (both departments worked with Jerry Ratcliffe, a criminal justice professor and the director of Temple’s Center for Security and Crime Science), which was funded by the same federal agency.

SEPTA joining the data science ranks shows how the data-driven trend is working its way through the city and those who keep it safe.

Like their PPD counterparts, the SEPTA cops who are trained as crime analysts wear multiple hats. They still work their usual patrol jobs, but every few weeks Nestel assigns them a new project. It might be focused on fare evasion, a quality-of-life crime or cellphone theft, the most prevalent crime on SEPTA grounds and the one that Nestel built his federal grant proposal around. The analysts then present their findings to command staff, who use the data to decide how, when and where to deploy the police force.

The results, Nestel said, have been “shocking.”

“Part 1” crimes — violent crimes like murder, rape and aggravated assault — that fall under SEPTA’s jurisdiction are down roughly 25 percent since last year, he said, adding that that’s a conservative estimate because he didn’t want to jump the gun on the crime drop before the year was over.

Nestel attributes that drop to SEPTA’s data-driven strategy. (SEPTA Police oversee the city’s two subway lines, trolleys and train stations like Suburban and Jefferson. When Nestel became chief, he broadened that to include the area right outside those places, too.)

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The SEPTA Police Department wasn’t always data-focused.

It was a complete change in our method.

When Nestel, 52, of Northeast Philly, became chief, the same amount of cops were assigned to every shift, regardless of how often crime occurred there. The same amount of cops were assigned to the day shift and the night shift. Same goes for the Broad Street Line and the Market-Frankford Line.

Nestel changed that. He looked at crime data to find out specific times and places that needed the most attention.

“It was a complete change in our method,” he said, calling it “wonderfully successful.”

He’s long been a champion of data-driven policing, chalking it up to an evidence-based policing program he completed at Penn nearly a decade ago. (He’s also currently working on getting his doctorate in criminology at Penn.)

“I’ve been charging forward with that mindset for eight or nine years,” he said. “Wherever I’ve worked, I’ve brought that idea and trained people to do that kind of work.”

He said he hopes to get more of his 275 SEPTA police officers trained in the crime analyst program, but that’s dependent on funding.

Companies: SEPTA

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