It’s a sobering sight from the back of a SEPTA bus.
A passenger takes off his belt, ties it around his wrist like a tourniquet and appears to inject a substance into his hand in the middle of the afternoon. Just feet away, fellow passenger, Aleesa McIer records the entire event and posts it online.
"Oh my God," she whispers as the man yields the needle.
Over the course of several minutes, the man, who identifies himself as Scott in the video, uses the needle at least three times. NBC10.com cannot independently confirm whether the man was using any illicit materials or doing anything wrong. We have concealed his face for those reasons.
"He was a very nice guy. But I find it’s kind of shameful and a little disrespectful that he would do this on the bus," McIer told NBC10.com in an interview this week.
The 22-year-old from Kensington says it happened the afternoon of March 11 on SEPTA’s Route 14 bus -- which runs from the Frankford Transportation Center through Northeast Philly and to the Oxford Valley Mall in Langhorne, Pa. McIer, who goes to school in Bucks County, regularly rides the route and says she has seen the man before.
"I guess you see me doing my thing, but it’s alright, right? But I don’t judge," the man said to McIer in the video.
"Right. You shouldn’t do that," she replies.
"He said he OD’d a few times. He said ‘I’ve been doing this since I’ve been young,’" she said recalling her conversation with the man. She said the man told her he regularly came down to Philadelphia to purchase drugs.
Scores of similar videos are posted online every week. The Facebook group People of SEPTA, whose tagline is "What the El," is famous for exposing riders' alleged bad and bizarre behavior on area buses, trains and trolleys. Many of the videos and photos show apparent drug-behavior. More than 74,000 Facebook users like the page, engage in conversation and share the videos with their friends.
In March, video of a mom who appeared to be extremely impaired on a crowded SEPTA bus with her young daughter went viral. Police and the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services launched an investigation and took the woman in for questioning.
"That’s shocking and it sticks in the back of your head," SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel said of McIer’s video. But the chief was quick to call such apparent public drug use rare on the transit system.
"When our plainclothes officers are out there riding the buses and subways every day, they occasionally see this and it’s a rare occasion," he said.
Nestel said the department did not specifically track drug use on the system or at stations. The statistics they do keep include drug-related charges for possession.
The Philadelphia region is the epicenter of heroin distribution in the Northeast. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy says heroin use has been on the rise in our area recently as purity and availability increases. Officials say the drug regularly lands in the city on maritime and air cargo shipments from Central and South America.
"Because of the purity of heroin that we know that many people will move from prescription pain medication to snorting or inhaling the drug, because it is so pure and then moving to injection drug use," Acting U.S. Drug Czar Michael Botticelli tells NBC10.com.
Botticelli’s office is currently funding staff who focus on our "high-intensity drug trafficking area” and work with federal, state and local law enforcement to cut off the supply. However, like Nestel, he cautions that the drug’s public use may not be as widespread as it appears.
"There's been so much more attention paid to the heroin issue. I have a feeling that people are just noticing it more as opposed to that there's really been substantial increase in terms of public use," he said.
McIver said she’s not sure what compelled her to record and post the video, but that she got flak for it.
"I did get a lot of negativity towards the video. I’m from Kensington. I’ve seen a lot of things. Something just made me want to record him," she said.
She didn’t call police to report what she witnessed and when asked why, McIer said: "I’m not going to snitch."
"It’s very concerning that we as a society, we’ll videotape a person…[rather] than calling the police for help," Nestel said. The chief says learning of cases like this after the fact makes it nearly impossible for his officers and detectives to get involved.
"It’d be great to handle the problem that was happening, because trying to track down information later is much more difficult than tracking down a bus and getting someone help right away," he said.
Nestel recognizes that bus or train passengers might be hesitant about calling police for help when they’re sitting feet from the doer in a closed, moving vehicle. So the transit system has decided to launch a text-to-911 service. Passengers and emergency dispatchers will be able to have a back-and-forth conversation over text message.
"This is going to be for everything," he said of the system that will launch this summer. "It’ll be manned 24x7 and regardless day or night and they will get that information to the correct person and agency or patrol that needs it."
Nestel believes could help police better respond to more incidents, which they might otherwise learn about after the fact in an online posting.
"We’ll take information from whatever source we can get it from. We prefer that people contact us directly," he said.