For people who live in Germantown and are regular riders of the Route 23 SEPTA bus, the shooting of a passenger Wednesday, May 24, came as a shock, but not a surprise.
For people who live in Germantown and are regular riders of the Route 23 SEPTA bus, the shooting of a passenger Wednesday, May 24, as the bus was traveling along the 5200 block of the Germantown Avenue came as a shock, but not a surprise. For many, it was yet one more reason to be wary of using Philadelphia’s public transit system.
According to published news reports, two men who were sitting opposite one another began arguing just before 11 p.m., then one pulled out a gun and shot the other several times in the abdomen. The 52-year-old bus driver, who narrowly missed being shot when a bullet penetrated the protective glass between her and the rest of the riders, immediately opened the doors and the shooter fled. The victim, 15-year-old Randy Mills, was transported to Albert Einstein Medical Center where he was pronounced dead at 11:04 p.m. Mills lived in West Mt. Airy.
As of press time Tuesday, no arrests have been made and police have not recovered a weapon.
Luke Billman, who lives on the 5200 block of Germantown Avenue, said he almost never takes SEPTA. But his kids take the 23 bus to get to and from school – and he’s definitely rattled. Both he and his wife drive to work, but with their schedules it’s just not practical for them to drive their kids to school.
“It makes my wife and I pretty nervous,” he said. “It creates a sense of fear. You never know when things are going to pop off.”
Germantown resident Anthony Flippen said he stopped taking SEPTA years ago. He thinks the Philadelphia Police Department should start putting unmarked cops on buses.
“If they put police officers on buses, things like this might not happen,” Flippen said. “It’ll make you think twice and wonder if there’s a police officer on the bus.”
Clinton Roane, who also lives in Germantown, wishes he didn’t have to take public transit but has no choice since he doesn’t have a car.
“I hope I get a car so I don’t have to take it,” he said. “I always feel very uncomfortable about it, but what can you do?”
Roane says he arranges his schedule so that he only has to take the bus during the day. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen at night,” he said.
Roane told the Local that, among the people he knows, SEPTA jobs have also become far less desirable because of how dangerous they can be. He said that one of his family members turned down an opportunity to work at the transit agency due to safety concerns.
“Everybody wanted a SEPTA job,” Roane said. “But nobody wants those jobs anymore.”
None of the three are alone in their worry. SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch told the Local that according to some SEPTA-conducted surveys, respondents do consider safety and security when deciding whether or not they will use public transit.
“It’s both a perception issue [and a tangible one], but obviously when we have an incident that’s very serious like the one that happened Wednesday, we’re always very concerned about that,” Busch said.
Busch said SEPTA is addressing that fear by hiring 25 new police officers. They are expected to join the ranks of transit police by the end of next month, which will increase the department’s staffing by more than 10%.
And SEPTA is already putting officers on buses on an “as-needed” basis.
“We have to be strategic about how we deploy [undercover cops],” Busch said. “If we’re seeing a trouble spot, or if somebody getting on a specific stop is giving the operator a hard time or people are being rowdy, we put an undercover officer on the bus.”
As for crime scaring away potential drivers, Busch said, the transit agency is suffering from staffing shortages, but that no applicants cited safety as a concern.
“Like a lot of places, we got behind on new hires and training,” he said. “For employers, it's a much more competitive marketplace in terms of attracting new talent.”
What the data says
Some crimes, including rape, robbery, aggravated assault and burglary, have increased on SEPTA property each year from 2019 – the last full year before the pandemic – to 2022, according to data provided by Busch.
That rise in crime comes despite a massive decrease in ridership, a product of the COVID pandemic. Ridership on the transit agency decreased from 293 million rides in its 2019 fiscal year to 175 million, which is the projection for the current fiscal year that ends June 30.
John Landis, a Chestnut Hill resident and professor emeritus of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Local that increasing crime on public transit as ridership has decreased is a national trend.
“Any time you have unregulated spaces like a bus or bus stop with fewer people, you have more crime opportunities,” he said. “When there are fewer eyes on the street, criminals feel they are less likely to be caught.”
In many parts of the country, Landis said, decreased ridership – coupled with COVID-related leniency in letting people out of prisons and jails – created the “perfect storm” for crime on public transit. That’s especially true for buses, he said, which tend not to rebound as well as regional rail and subways in the wake of recessions or other COVID-like service disruptions. All of SEPTA’s transit modes decreased during the 2008 recession, Landis said, but buses were the only service not to truly recover after the economic downturn. It’s part of a long-term downward trend of urban bus service in the country.
Philadelphia, however, is distinct – not just because of high rates of crime and poverty, but because of how concentrated that crime and poverty are in certain areas of the city such as North and West Philadelphia.
“Those areas are very highly served by buses,” Landis said. “You have buses going in and out of high crime and poverty areas all the time, and that creates new opportunities [for crime].”
SEPTA’s 23 bus route is a microcosm of this phenomenon. The route starts and ends in relatively low crime areas – beginning in Chestnut Hill and ending at the intersection of 11th and Market in Center City. But many of the neighborhoods it travels through in between those locations – including parts of Germantown, Nicetown, North Philadelphia and Glenwood – have much higher rates of crime and poverty.
The city responds
A spokesperson in Mayor Jim Kenney’s office told the Local in a statement on Friday that officials know riders are concerned and they continue “to work closely with SEPTA and our other public transit partners to ensure incidents like these don't happen.”
“Recent incidents like the one on SEPTA this week should never happen,” the statement said. “Public transit is meant to connect us, and we want everyone to be safe while traveling.”
Philadelphia Police Department chief inspector Scott Small told reporters in a news conference that the bus driver had a narrow escape.
“The bullet clearly went through the glass partition, about head level where this 52-year-old bus driver was sitting,” he said. “How she wasn’t struck by gunfire is unknown, but she is extremely, extremely lucky,” he said.
Chuck Lawson, chief of SEPTA’s transit police, said the shooter was wearing a mask called a “shiesty,” which covers the entire head and neck, save for a small slit of a cut out for the eyes. These masks, Lawson said, are illegal to wear on SEPTA property.
“If you come on SEPTA property wearing your sheisty you will be engaged by police,” Lawson said. “You have two choices: You either remove it or we escort you off the property.”
Some take it in stride
Not all Germantown residents agree that they should be worried. Take Tyrone Ryales and Michelle Reid, a couple who are planning to marry soon. They both take SEPTA every day. In fact, they were on the 5200 block of Germantown Avenue the night of the shooting, and caught the 23 bus that arrived just before the one where the shooting happened.
Despite the close call, neither feels afraid to continue riding public transit in Philadelphia. It’s an incident that could’ve happened anywhere they said.
“It was an argument between two people that got out of control,” Ryales said.
Ryales said he “feels safe” riding SEPTA, but he noted that he makes sure his arms are covered. He’s afraid some people might mistake his tattoos for gang symbols. After all, he said, Germantown is a “high violence neighborhood.”
He’s also, however, looking to obtain a license to carry a gun.