SEPTA Police Officer Takes a Special – and Inappropriate – Interest in Marijuana Activists

Lieutenant Nicole Lawson of the SEPTA Police at Independence Mall, June 30 - Smokedown Prohibition VI. Photo by Ed Roper (https://www.facebook.com/edroperphoto)

Lieutenant Nicole Lawson of the SEPTA Police at Independence Mall, June 30 – Smokedown Prohibition VI. Photo by Ed Roper  

By Dustin Slaughter and Kenneth Lipp

On June 30th at Independence Mall, the Panic Hour and Philly NORML held their sixth successful Smokedown Prohibition demonstration against marijuana criminalization.

Activist and comedian N.A. Poe was forced to attend the Smokedown from a short distance, as the terms of his pretrial release prohibit his entering Independence Mall. Photo by Kenneth Lipp

Activist and comedian N.A. Poe was forced to attend the Smokedown from a short distance, as the terms of his pretrial release prohibit his entering Independence Mall. Photo by Kenneth Lipp

A DHS officer using his smartphone to record Adam Kokesh speaking in the chaotic aftermath of 4:20 at Smokedown 6

A DHS officer out of frame using his smartphone to record Adam Kokesh speaking in the chaotic aftermath of 4:20 at Smokedown 6 . Photo by Kenneth Lipp

Most notable about this particular demonstration was the overwhelming and unnecessary amount of law enforcement presence at Independence Mall, where hundreds gathered to speak and smoke in an act of civil disobedience. Agencies present ranged from the Philadelphia Police Department, SEPTA transit police (more on that in a moment) and even the Department of Homeland Security.

The Curious Presence of Lieutenant Nicole Lawson

On May 20th 2013, following the first pre-trial appearance of Panic Hour activist and comedian N.A. Poe and gun rights advocate Adam Kokesh, both of whom were arrested during a previous marijuana legalization rally at Independence Mall, Poe’s associate Kyle Prouty was detained and charged by Lt. Nicole Lawson of the SEPTA Police Department during a strange encounter in City Hall’s Broad Street station.

Watch the arrest below:

Prouty was charged with disorderly conduct, obstructing a public passage and resisting arrest.

In January of 2013, then Sergeant Lawson was named in press reports for her role in the arrest of man for beating a woman and throwing her on the tracks of the Broad Line at Chinatown Station.

Lawson was able to apprehend the man with the aid of real-time information-sharing technology that sent images of the suspect directly to her smartphone “just 15 minutes after the attack.”

SEPTA has the most comprehensive surveillance network in the city, which the Philadelphia Police Department also uses as its primary source of real-time video intelligence (its own system has been reported as quasi-operational). The FOX 29 report on the Chinatown incident notes:

SEPTA now has tens of thousands of cameras in its subway stations, on its subway cars, and in its buses and trolleys.

Detectives can watch in real time or can review a recorded event after they get a 911 call. That’s what happened with the subway attack.

The use of such innovative technological resources in the identification and apprehension of dangerous criminals such as those who would beat a woman severely and throw her onto subway tracks is something to which few responsibly engaged members of society would object.

However, the monitoring and effective restriction of lawful activity with the same high-tech resources constitutes a threat to the community at large, activity such as employing public transit to take part as an observer in our federal criminal justice system, clearly the case in the video of the May 20th incident above. The group of activists had spent 15 minutes in the Market Line’s 5th street station before being confronted by Lieutenant Lawson immediately after arriving at the City Hall Station of the Broad Street line.

Lawson was also a high-profile presence at the most recent Smokedown, where all of the Panic Hour members involved in the Broad Line incident were naturally in attendance. I spoke with Kyle Prouty, who was understandably intimidated by the SEPTA officer’s presence (the video indicates Prouty was singled-out for harassment, as he was not “on the yellow line,” or violating any other given law or lawful order).

We asked Thomas J. Nestel III, Chief of SEPTA Police, to address the issue (on twitter):

nestel1

We conveyed the activists’ specific concern, their impression that they were being targeted, to which Nestel replied that he would “take care of that perception.”

nestel2

Chief Nestel’s remarks taken into account, to grant as a coincidence Lawson’s appearance at the Smokedown requires too great a suspension of disbelief for the Declaration’s editors to muster. The harassment on the Broad Street Line, along with the overall tactical intimidation ploy which her presence along with black-clad DHS officers as part of an 80-man, 5 agency showing at Independence Mall constitutes, raise serious questions about local law enforcement’s use of their cutting-edge toys.

Photo by Kenneth Lipp

Photo by Kenneth Lipp

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About Kenneth Lipp

Kenneth is a writer and researcher. He’s from Alabama, and will not apologize for it. He moved to Pennsylvania in 2012, but has been in love with Philadelphia since a late-night stroll down Ben Franklin Parkway to the Art Museum in July of 2011 with the love of his life. He is interested in telling Philadelphia’s dynamic and absolutely unique stories with the zeal of a constantly enamored newcomer. Kenneth is also passionate about government transparency and protection of whistleblowers, most notably PFC Chelsea Manning. His research and reporting on law enforcement and surveillance have been featured in various publications, including Rolling Stone (Meet the Private Companies Helping Cops Spy on Protesters) and Popular Science (Boston Tested Crowd-Watching Software That Catalogues People's Skin Color). His training is in both genetics and history and he likes the joke about being a helicase and unzipping your “genes.” He’s driven to know, and thinks you can handle, the truth. Follow him on Twitter @kennethlipp.

There is one comment

  1. Steve Miller-Miller

    “Here’s a little wisdom, for lines orange and blue,
    When you fuck with SEPTA,
    SEPTA fucks with you…
    They say I should protect and serve,
    but that’s not how I roll,
    Cuz when you’re ridin’ SEPTA,
    you better guard your hole!”

    -Federal Detention: The Musical

    Like

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