Philadelphia police account of bystanders filming rape on train wasn’t true

SEPTA's Thomas J. Nestel III said last week that "people were holding their phone up in the direction of this woman being attacked."

A disturbing story about a woman being raped on a Philadelphia commuter train while other passengers filmed the incident is being disproved. 

As previously reported by theGrio and other national and international news outlets, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority Police Chief Thomas J. Nestel III said at a news conference last Monday that “people were holding their phone up in the direction of this woman being attacked.” 

A recent reort about a woman being raped on a SEPTA train in Philadelphia while other passengers watched and filmed the crime is being disproved. (Photo: William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)

“We want everyone to be angry, disgusted, and to join us in being resolute in keeping our system safe,” he added. “We need the public to notify us when they see something that seems to be unusual.”

Another police superintendent, Timothy Bernhardt of Upper Darby, also said last week: “It’s disturbing that there were definitely people on the El, and no one did anything to intervene or help this woman. It speaks to where we are in society; I mean, who would allow something like that to take place?”

Apparently, no one. In a bombshell new opinion piece for Philadelphia magazine, journalist Ernest Owens — also a contributor to theGrio — writes “Police Lies About SEPTA Riders Filming a Rape Show Yet Again Why We Can’t Trust Them.”

“There is a narrative out there that people sat there on the El train and watched this transpire and took videos of it for their own gratification,” Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer said at a press conference last Thursday about the incident, per Owens’ report. “That is simply not true. It did not happen. We have security video from SEPTA that shows that is not the true narrative.”

Owens notes that the district attorney said there were not many riders on the late-night train, and many of those who saw the attack were in and out of the train and may not have understood what was happening. 

“This is the El, guys,” Stollsteimer said. “We’ve all ridden it. People get off and on at every single stop. That doesn’t mean when they get on and they see people interacting that they know a rape is occurring.”

He added that two people may have recorded video of the attack on their cellphone, and one of them alerted the transportation authority. 

According to a report from NBC 10 Philadelphia, Stollsteimer is calling for people who may have witnessed the assault to come forward, noting that some may not have done so out of fear of prosecution; however, it is not unlawful to avoid intervening when witnessing a crime in Pennsylvania. 

He opined that “people in this region are not, in my experience, so inhuman” that they would videotape a rape “for their own private enjoyment.”

In his Philadelphia piece, however, Owens posits that it is not just the fact that police “lied” about the initial reports of the incidents being recorded, but that they “mischaracterized a group of people who could now be potential witnesses in helping the victim get justice.” 

“With the constant reports of racial bias, sexism and discrimination from police departments across the country, we should no longer blindly take their word for it,” Owens writes. “Police are people, and people lie — they are no exceptions.” 

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