Ph.D. Student at Penn Is ‘Top Cop’ at SEPTA

Wearing a police uniform, Thomas J. Nestel III cuts a commanding presence when he walks across campus at the University of Pennsylvania. But he’s not on patrol; he’s a student and a teacher.

Nestel is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in criminology at Penn — he holds multiple graduate degrees — and is teaching a spring semester undergraduate course in the School of Arts and Sciences. He is doing all of this while commanding the transit police division of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, one of the largest public transport systems in the country.

A typical work day for Nestel begins at his SEPTA office. He jumps on the trolley for a nine minute commute to campus, patrols enroute, teaches a course at the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology, holds faculty office hours, then goes back to SEPTA’s Center City headquarters to finish the day.

Nestel, who earned his master’s degree in criminology from Penn in 2006, holds a B.S. in criminal justice from Chestnut Hill College and two additional master’s degrees, one in public safety from St. Joseph's University and the other in national security studies from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.

“Now, I’m trying to chase the Ph.D. dream,” he says.

His dissertation is entitled “Knowledge of Constitutional Criminal Procedure: Does Law Guide Law Enforcement?” 

“It’s about the understanding of constitutional guidelines by the police and the implementation of those guidelines in their daily decision making,” Nestel explains.

Police departments routinely gather a tremendous amount of data, Nestel says, but “I want to spearhead the best use of police department data so resources and programs are better focused on communities and are successful and evaluated.”

Nestel has conducted extensive research on the use of public domain surveillance systems, CCTV. He used the data to help write operating policy guidelines for Philadelphia’s program. He has also conducted studies to determine the effectiveness of red light camera systems on intersection safety.

He brings more than 30 years of law enforcement experience to the class he teaches at Penn, Law and Criminal Justice.” The course explores constitutional criminal procedure or the law of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth amendments to the United States Constitution. Topics include the laws and rules associated with search and seizure, arrest, interrogation, the exclusionary rule and deprivation of counsel.

Nestel enriches his lectures with real life examples from his experiences with evidence based policing, the use of data and analysis to assist in the deployment of police and initiation of programs such as “stop and frisk.”

Nestel says he always knew that he wanted to be a uniformed police officer.

A fourth generation cop, he counts a brother, uncles and cousins as police officers. His father also worked in the “family business,” rising to the rank of deputy police commissioner before his retirement.

Nestel credits both his father and mother for instilling the value of higher education in him. Each holds a master’s degree and he says that they saw his potential.

Nestel says he has always enjoyed being challenged intellectually.

“I like talking to people with completely opposing points of view and not because I think I’m going to convince them otherwise,” he says, “but I’m able to convince them that opposing points of views are okay.”

In keeping with his interest in broad and open lines of communication, he has a meeting with area marijuana activists once a month and he tweets and follows people on Twitter who are wildly opposed to police and government – his handle is @TNestel3. He reveals a keen wit and sense of humor in his posts. "Let me help the criminal element. Major event in city = more Transit Police. Not the day to misbehave,” he tweeted on New Year’s Day with the hash tag #cheesesandwiches, a reference to what jailed lawbreakers in the city are served behind bars. 

“I try to get people to understand that being in uniform doesn’t mean I’m not a person,” he says. “I think that if police just used their personality they could probably get a lot further than using their authority.”

Nestel began his career in law enforcement in 1982 as a patrol officer with SEPTA before joining the Philadelphia Police Department. He was on the force for more than 22 years and attained the rank of staff inspector. He earned 24 commendations for merit, heroism and bravery. Before returning to SEPTA two years ago, Nestel served as chief of police of Upper Moreland Township.

The “fanatically loyal Quaker,” who can be seen wearing a Penn sweatshirt or baseball cap most of the time when he’s off duty, says he hopes to complete his doctoral work and earn his Ph.D. by the end of the year.

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