Sunday, December 14, 1997

Voices sound off on crime

In his second term, Mayor Ed Rendell was hugely admired for having revived Philadelphia's finances and injecting bolts of confidence into a city that never had much to feel good about. But he hadn't been paying enough attention to public safety. And people let him know it.


The voices are of citizen outrage.

Lorraine Dubzak, Rhawnhurst: "I go to Center City periodically. I have a permit to carry a weapon . . . The 15th Street Concourse, I haven't been down there for a while. I'm walking, I'm like . . . where the hell is everybody? . . .

"I had a guy follow me down there. I just reached into my waistband, clipped my clip in, and I walked and I just watched what I was doing. . . . You have to watch yourself."

Inez Porter, Cobbs Creek: "I don't have a drug corner in my area, I have an infestation. . . . I see the nonchalant attitude of the police on the street and the radio. . . . Nobody answers my letters."

The Rev. Kermit Newkirk, Logan: "People are leaving the city in droves. It's crime, schools. People in the inner city, they aren't even surprised by car theft anymore. We have people come out of church, the car is gone. It's not a major thing. It's just the cost of going to church."

Voices of outrage - out of earshot of Mayor Rendell.

In every corner of the city, sentiment is rising for a smarter, more aggressive attack on crime.
To many Philadelphians, crime is no abstraction, no statistic, no headline. It's the anxious undercurrent of everyday life.

And they're wondering if the most popular mayor in the city's recent history hears their cry.

In an unusual effort to pressure City Hall, an unlikely coalition of five state legislators is holding a series of "town meetings" in various sections of Philadelphia, allowing academics, activists and everyday people to express their frustrations with the Philadelphia Police Department and to offer prescriptions for change.

A number of City Council members and other officials have joined the sessions. But not the mayor. And not Police Commissioner Richard Neal.

The discussions are the latest volley from the so-called Gang of 5: Democrats Dwight Evans and Anthony H. Williams and Republicans John Perzel, George Kenney and John Taylor, all representatives from Philadelphia. They're the strange bedfellows who attracted attention in September by hosting an appearance by William Bratton, the former New York City police commissioner credited with slashing crime rates in the Big Apple.

The current series is a road show, with meetings in West, Northeast and Northwest Philadelphia, and boasting the star power of Jack Maple, Bratton's brash and foppish former assistant in New York. A fourth forum is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday at Community College of Philadelphia. It will feature George Kelling - the criminologist whose "broken windows theory" of aggressively attacking nuisance crime has influenced the NYPD and other cutting-edge departments.

No official representatives of the Philadelphia Police Department have come to these public seminars on modern policing - although administration officials are quietly monitoring the proceedings.

To some critics, Rendell's and Neal's absence confirms suspicions that the city's leadership has been caught flat-footed while a revolution in policing roars on elsewhere.

"I think Rendell is unsure what to do," says Allen Hornblum, an adviser on crime issues to Evans, who plans to run for mayor in 1999. "I think he wishes he could sweep the issue under the rug. I think he and [former Chief of Staff David] Cohen figured that some issues were so intractable, so infused with racial and social components, that they shouldn't be touched."

Nonsense, retorts the Rendell camp. "The fact is, we have been working on these issues going back to January of 1996, when we had a law-enforcement retreat and began looking at this in a strategic way," said Kevin Feeley, the mayor's spokesman.

A parade of improvements has followed, Feeley said: 600 more officers on the 6,800-member force, with an additional 200 coming next year; a $4.9 million grant to fight "quality of life" crime such as graffiti, underage drinking and loitering; the tripling of the Narcotics Strike Force to 150 officers; the formation of a 100-officer Rapid Response Team that will zoom in on crime hot spots.

But despite administration polls showing an 80 percent approval rating for the mayor's overall performance, despite Philadelphia's ranking as one of the safest of big cities, many Philadelphians think more urgency is needed.

"The view from our side," said Evans, speaking of his fellow representatives, "is the mayor doesn't view the problem as severe as the members do."

"What we need," said the Rev. Newkirk, a spokesman for Philadelphia Interfaith Action, an interdenominational body representing 45 groups, "is very, very, very strong leadership from the mayor, and a police commissioner who is committed to community policing and someone who will change the culture of policing."

According to surveys completed by 324 people at the first three sessions, 91 percent believe Rendell and City Council are devoting too little attention to crime-fighting and improving the Police Department. Three-quarters said they feel unsafe walking in their neighborhoods after dark. The respondents were evenly split between men and women; about two-thirds were black, one-third white.

Last week, another state representative, Benjamin Ramos (D., Phila.), issued a task-force report urging more police officers and new community-policing strategies for the so-called Badlands in North Philadelphia, which has one of the highest crime rates in the Northeastern United States. Up to now, "police resources allocated to combat the problem do not even come close to being satisfactory," the report states.

Early this summer, Rendell lashed out at the Gang of 5 as unwelcome meddlers in city affairs. But after the legislators brought in Bratton to speak to local leaders on Sept. 2, Rendell turned around and hired Bratton. His job: to review redeployment plans that the administration has been developing.

Bratton has met with Rendell four times since then, Feeley said Friday - twice as part of a group, twice in one-on-one sessions. Neal has been at some of the meetings.

The substance of those discussions has been as well-guarded a secret as the redeployment plans themselves. City Council members have been asking for a peek at the blueprints for months, to no avail. Administration officials say the plans won't be shown until finished, and that for security reasons they won't ever be revealed in detail. "You don't hold a press conference," Rendell said, "to announce that D-Day is under way."

That has fed a sense among many critics that Rendell is standing aloof from a growing groundswell for serious action. "It seems like all the planning is being done outside the public perspective and the Council perspective," said Councilman Angel Ortiz, who held hearings on public safety earlier this year. "I think we're all trying to do the same thing, and if we worked together I think we'd get there much quicker.

"The way to do it is to pick up the phone," Ortiz said. "Come and testify. Share."

The Gang of 5 legislators say it was the pressure they applied that led Rendell to hire Bratton as a consultant. The formation of the Rapid Response Team and the beefing-up of the Narcotics Strike Force - announced by Rendell last month and going into effect today - followed Philadelphia officials' conversations with the former New York chief.

Rendell says angrily that the Gang of 5 is playing to the gallery and that the five have ignored his calls for legislative action that would help policing in Philadelphia. The mayor wants Harrisburg to approve a 10-cent surcharge on lottery tickets sold in the city to pay for 600 to 750 more officers, and to send state troopers to patrol the Schuylkill Expressway and Interstate 95 to free up 50 to 60 Philadelphia officers for the Rapid Response Team.

Feeley said Rendell and the five legislators met on a Friday night shortly after Bratton's Sept. 2 appearance. "They promised they would work to support the legislative program, and in return, the mayor would meet with Bratton," Feeley said. "It's Dec. 14. We held up our end of the deal. And they haven't done a single thing to move on the legislation."

Evans denies any promises were made. "We agreed that we would set up a working relationship," Evans said.

But the legislators won't push for any bills, he said, until they've studied the Police Department in depth - and learned about better ways of doing things.

Jack Maple is a grizzled former subway officer who invariably wears a silk bow tie, a double-breasted Brooks Brothers blazer, two-tone shoes and a homburg apropos of a Belgian banker. A high-school dropout with immense confidence in his own IQ, his smarts were recognized by Bratton, who chose him as his deputy and chief strategist when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani gave Bratton the reins of the 32,000-member NYPD in 1994.

It was Maple who came up with Comstat - the simple-sounding system of mapping crime by computer, sending police to the trouble spots that the computers reveal and goading commanders relentlessly for results. And if the commanders didn't perform, "we gave them a less demanding assignment," Maple said Nov. 19 at Anderson Elementary School in West Philadelphia.

It was holy writ to chart every complaint of car theft, public drinking, "the throwing beer cans around, the loud radios at 3 o'clock in the morning, the motorcycles back and forth, the drug dealing in the hallway," Maple said. Stopping such "quality of life" crimes helped cut down on more serious crimes; fewer people carry guns in New York now, for instance, because of the increased likelihood of being hassled by police on something relatively minor.

Another precept was to make sure that police were on duty at times when criminals are most active. It sounds elementary. But most New York officers worked 9 to 5. "The criminal element, their chart [schedule] wasn't as good," Maple deadpanned. "They had to work nights, they were working weekends.

"I want to make this real clear," Maple said. "It would not have made a difference if New York had another 50,000 cops if they weren't deployed right."

With Maple doing his mapping and Bratton demoting commanders who didn't perform and pushing those who did, New York accomplished what no big city was supposed to be able to do: not just react to crime, but get ahead of the curve.

"It's not the number of arrests that count," Maple said. "The victory in fighting crime is having less victims."

Bratton left New York in 1996 in a clash of egos with Giuliani. Maple followed. But their methods live on. New York has cut its murder rate 60 percent since 1993, its overall crime rate 43 percent.

For the last year, Maple has worked in New Orleans, applying his know-how to what is perhaps the nation's worst police department. Although crime is still high in New Orleans, the murder rate is down 24 percent from last year, violent crime down 22 percent, he said.

"Knocking down crime can be accomplished, and accomplished very, very quickly," Maple declared. "Don't let anybody tell you that this has to be an evolutionary process. This is a revolutionary process . . .

"It can be implemented in 90 days and you will see results in 90 days."

To the Gang of 5, Maple came on like gangbusters.

"I agreed with all of it," Evans said. "Every single bit of what he said."

The view that crime is an intractable by-product of social inequities, lousy educations, teen motherhood, you name it - has dominated for years. "New York has revolutionized the thinking on what good policing can do," Evans' adviser Hornblum said. "I know a lot of people, academics at Temple [University] and around the country who feel this has wiped the slate clean."

In early 1995, the activist group Philadelphia Interfaith Action worked with the Police Department to create a community policing program, based on the Bratton model, in three neighborhoods. Eight officers walked beats in close contact with community leaders. "These projects were very successful," Newkirk says.

But Neal, who had accepted the programs reluctantly, pulled the plug after eight months, saying the officers were needed elsewhere.

Mr. Newkirk's conclusion: "We have a mayor who is distracted and a commissioner who is unaccountable and incompetent."

Several years ago, Glenn Devitt, president of United Northeast Neighbors, representing 29 community groups, spearheaded a crime-charting effort that resulted in a 72-page report. The 1994 study noted that crime had risen steeply in the Northeast for a decade, but that police officers hadn't been added accordingly. It identified problems with the 911 emergency-response system three weeks before teenager Eddie Polec was murdered by a teen gang in Fox Chase and police took 40 minutes to show up.

"Unfortunately, not much was done with our report," says Devitt, who spoke at two of the Gang of 5 meetings.

He noted that most of the report's conclusions could also be found in the 1987 top-to-bottom study of the police department requested by then-Commissioner Kevin Tucker. Not much was done with that, either.

"I think there's a difference in philosophy," says Devitt, a retired SEPTA manager with a master's degree in community economic development. "I think the mayor states as a basic principle, that if we can improve the economy, bring in the businesses and the tourists, that will produce enough revenue, and then we can provide social services. He looks at community policing like a social service.

"But in reality, if you want to bring business in and keep people from leaving, you have to create at least the perception of public safety and you have to have a public school system that educates its citizens."

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