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Dad Holding Daughter Arrested for Evading El Fare, But Questions Remain Over Use of Force

Chief takes the blame for why the arrest took place after officer said he feared discipline as investigation launched

A father whose arrest was caught on video and went viral online after he supposedly didn't pay a subway fare for his young daughter was actually taken into custody for not paying his fare in Philadelphia, SEPTA police said. But now the altercation between him and police is under scrutiny.

Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority Police Chief Thomas Nestel said Ellis Smith skipped out on the $2.25 payment while entering the westbound tracks of SEPTA's Market-Frankford El at the Margaret-Orthodox station Thursday afternoon. A cashier notified police which dispatched an officer to investigate.

A video of the incident was posted to Facebook by the mother of another passenger claiming the 20-year-old father was being harassed for not paying the toddler's fare. Children under 4 ride for free.

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The video showed a number of police grabbing Smith as he clutched his daughter, in her pink dress and with braids in her hair, near a subway platform wall. Outrage swiftly ensued as people demanded answers about the arrest.

The officer, a 16-year veteran whose name hasn't been released, spent more than five minutes asking Smith to provide ID and step off the train, surveillance video showed and Nestel said at a briefing Friday. At one point, the officer tried to physically pull the man from his seat, grabbed him by the neck and threw him into the train's wall while holding the girl, video showed.

"We don’t teach people to grab persons by the throat," Nestel said of the interaction.

Eventually, Smith was partially handcuffed and removed from the train. He apparently tried to swing at officers as they attempted to remove the girl from his arms, Nestel said. Another rider was handed the child and the man arrested.

"It was frustrating to watch," said Ahmad Najam, who recorded the video that went viral. He moved from the back of the train after hearing passengers complain about the scuffle.

"The guy was saying cite me right here. I’ve got things to do," Najam recalled. He said the father and officer were cursing back and forth at each other during the exchange. Some passengers offered to pay the fare for Smith to stop the argument, he said.

"That’s not acceptable. I think excessive force was used for a $2.25 fare," he said.

SEPTA police have led an aggressive campaign to crack down on fare evaders — issuing 5,100 citations last year. Nestel frequently tweets surveillance photos of evaders being issued citations. He credits the push with a 30 percent drop in violent crime on the transit system.

But Friday, Nestel said it appears top brass have been sending the rank-and-file too strong a message on the issue.

Asked why the he didn't walk away from the father seeing potential harm to the child, the officer told a supervisor he feared disciplinary action had he let Smith go.

"That’s a failure on my part," Nestel said.

A highly-visible and frank police leader, Nestel has made many changes since taking over the 270 officer force in 2012 including arresting panhandlers, piloting body cameras and starting a campaign asking parents not to teach their kids to be scared of police.

"I never want a child's safety jeopardized ... While a successful campaign to reduce crime worked for us, but it didn't work yesterday afternoon for a little child over a fare evasion," the chief said.

A handful of protesters lined up outside SEPTA headquarters along Market Street following the news conference. They demanded disciplinary action for the officers.

"It was no reason to put that child, that black baby, that precious black baby, in jeopardy at all, for a damn citation," Asa Khalif said. He called for the officer to be pulled from duty.

An internal affairs investigation is underway, as is standard procedure, Nestel said.

The child was returned to her mother as Smith was cited for the fare evasion as well as disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Once the dust settled, the officer and father did shake hands and the man said he acted inappropriately, according to Nestel.

Attempts to reach Smith have been unsuccessful and it's unclear if he's retained an attorney.

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