SEPTA passengers and police fight the same fight every day at Broad and Olney.
Drug dealers use stores as fronts to peddle product, "hack" cabs trawl for easy fares, students at rival schools gather at the transit hub to settle beefs, and punks loitering in stairwells may be casing passers-by as unsuspecting robbery targets.
"The part that is annoying is coming upstairs from the subway, and the first thing you hear is, 'Hack! Hack!' 'Loosie! Loosie!' and you see people standing around," said Ernest Saxton, 72, a longtime area resident who often uses the Olney Transportation Center at the intersection. "The first thing you want to do is get away from the corner."
Because of these perennial quality-of-life crimes, cops are cracking down at the transit hub — the city's second busiest, serving 35,300 riders on an average weekday. Police are taking aim at low-level crimes like loitering, fare evasion and disorderly conduct in hopes of keeping the transit center clear of anyone who's not there for the bus, subway or another legitimate reason. It's a step, they say, toward tackling the problems of "hacks" — unlicensed cabs — drug dealing and "loosie" cigarette hustling.
The quality-of-life crimes may seem petty, but they can create an atmosphere for more-serious offenses, like assaults and robberies — which is why police are cracking down at Olney, hoping to get thugs off the street before they can commit worse crimes.
A man in a hoodie
On a recent unseasonably warm fall afternoon, droves of people passed through the transportation center — hundreds of school students flocked to bus stops and stood chattering and laughing as still more passengers ascended into the bus loop after leaving Broad Street Line subways below.
Not one of the hundreds of passengers seemed to notice an unassuming young man in a hooded sweatshirt who skirted along the edges of the crowd in no discernible direction. But he stood out to SEPTA Police Chief Tom Nestel.
"He's a cop," Nestel said with a grin. "You'd never know."
The plainclothes officer and his partner, both part of a new team of tactical police officers trained in the summer, were stationed at the hub that afternoon to look out for drug dealers.
Their presence — and that of about 10 additional SEPTA officers who watch over the hub at peak afternoon hours — is part of an initiative by SEPTA police to improve the crime-plagued stop. Officers are deployed there based on data that show crime hot spots, Nestel said, and they're targeting the same quality-of-life crimes that Saxton lamented.
"Every time I come here, it's madness," Nestel said as he eyed the mass of passengers at the frenetic hub. "We have some drug sales in the area and a lot of loitering in stairwells. People [loitering] in stairwells are generally not up to any good. We take care of it before it becomes a robbery or assault."
Police statistics show that Olney, although not as crowded as the Frankford Transportation Center in the lower Northeast, has had a slightly worse problem with certain crimes.
From the beginning of the year through last month, police logged 22 robberies and nine aggravated assaults within about a block of Olney, compared with 21 robberies and six aggravated assaults in the immediate area around Frankford. Drug offenses, however, have been logged almost twice as often at Frankford than at Olney, statistics show. Recorded thefts at Frankford were about a third higher than those at Olney through the end of September.
Watching a decline
Saxton, who has lived a few blocks from the Olney transit center since 1969, said he's seen it go downhill over the years. He said the drug dealers, hacks and "loosie" cigarette sellers took over streets that once belonged to neighborhood folks who would get off the train and shop or dine along the business corridor.
"A lot of times I used to walk from Broad and Olney to home," Saxton said. "I would stop at maybe Smith's [Deli] . . . stop at the store — they used to have a record store. But now when you come up, you don't experience that."