Penn Doctoral student promoted to chief of SEPTA Police


Tom Nestel, Ph.D student in the Criminology Department, was promoted after starting his career there in 1982


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Chief of SEPTA Police Tom Nestel has received numerous awards and commendations. His Ph.D. in criminology at Penn will be his fifth degree.

Photo by Andrew Dierkes


Late this summer, Tom Nestel went home.

The current part-time doctoral student in the Criminology Department at Penn was promoted in late August to Chief of SEPTA Police, where he initially began his law enforcement career in 1982.

Nestel, 50, was brought back by the great opportunity. “I started as one of the first group of people to patrol the subways. It feels great to be back,” he said.

He was most recently police chief in Upper Moreland Township in Montgomery County, Pa. However, he has spent the majority of his law enforcement career in Philadelphia.

After three years policing SEPTA, he joined the Philadelphia Police Department, where he spent upwards of two decades in a slew of different divisions, including Narcotics and Detectives.

Members of Nestel’s family have served in PPD for four generations, and his colleagues say he has embodied that tradition with his police work.

PPD Deputy Commissioner Richard J. Ross Jr. worked closely with Nestel during his time at the department. “Tom Nestel is the type of guy who, everyone knows, he loves police work. It’s in his blood. I think he was born to do it, and he does it very well,” he said.

Ross went on to say that Nestel leads by example. “He’s a guy who leads from the front, and I don’t believe he ever asked his men and women to do anything that he wouldn’t do.”

Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush has known Nestel since his rookie days. “He’s hard-working, he’s very passionate about helping people and he’s about getting results,” she said.

Nestel has been very involved in the Penn community of late. In addition to his current doctoral studies, he earned a master’s degree in 2006 from the same department.

“He’s always been a very insightful, bright student,” Criminology chair John MacDonald said. “We generally don’t have part-time doctoral students, but we can make an exception when somebody is particularly talented.”

MacDonald added that the Ph.D. is not necessary for a police chief and that a police chief rarely spends as much time in the classroom as Nestel has. But it reveals Nestel’s drive and work ethic.

“I like school,” Nestel said. “I like education, but I’m also very strongly in favor of evidence-based policing, and I think that, especially, my Penn education has helped solidify that line of thinking, and it’s the wave of the future for policing.”

Nestel also taught an undergraduate course in criminology last semester and plans to teach it again in the spring.

“Penn students are fantastic, you know. They’re smart people, and it was neat to be able to give them the perspective of a police officer in relation to criminal law,” he said.

But Nestel’s influence on Penn now extends well beyond academics.

“There are excellent benefits for us at Penn, as he’s part of the University City Public Safety Group,” Rush said. “SEPTA Police work very closely with Penn Police.”

Nestel took a literal stance on the SEPTA-Penn partnership: “We run underneath the Penn community. The crimes that occur above ground [also] occur below ground. The folks that we’re transporting to and from Penn are just as susceptible as anyone else to being victims of crime.”

Rush said from the get go, Nestel “won’t sit around. You’ll see new programs sweeping across the SEPTA Police Department.”

She was right. In just three weeks as police chief, Nestel has already started to install programs to increase the visibility of the transit police, in addition to educating people on how to travel SEPTA more safely.

“Right away, people should have been seeing more police officers out on the system during the times when the most people are using the system,” he said.

Nestel is the proud recipient of 24 commendations and four degrees — the Ph.D. will be his fifth.

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