Tuesday, January 13, 1998

The Badlands outside, filth inside

One of the hardest things to convey in words is what the decrepitude of a major city is truly like. I tried to get at it with this one.



The reek, the stench, the stink from the juvenile detention cell should be enough in and of itself to force the closing of the headquarters building of the 24th and 25th Police Districts of North Philadelphia and Kensington.

But that would ignore the uncollected garbage bags cluttering the grimy stairwells, the overcrowded offices for detectives, the permanent grime on their gray metal desks, the heating system that goes awry and the air-conditioning that doesn't cool, the unusable locker rooms.

The roaches.

A state legislative report, released in December by Rep. Benjamin Ramos, a Democrat from the area, called the facility "totally inappropriate and unsafe."

As if that were news. Back in 1995, the city government set aside $8 million for a new facility for the 24th and 25th, after Mayor Rendell toured the run-down station at the request of the police wives' organization. "One officer described it as a pigpen," Rendell said in his 1995 budget address, "and he was being charitable."

Three Januaries later, $8 million is still set aside for a new building. Blueprints are ready. But with the tortoise pace of a bureaucracy trailing political and community bickering, no site has been determined and no groundbreaking is in sight.

Police here patrol some of the lowest-income and highest-crime swaths of Philadelphia - a battered landscape of ruins, marked by graffiti, brazen drug-dealing, domestic chaos, sporadic gunfire.

To lock up suspects, question witnesses, write reports, wrap up their shifts, officers trek back to a headquarters at Front and Westmoreland Streets that's every bit as bleak as the turf outside.

"The 24th and 25th contain some of the poorest and worst conditions in the city," said Robert Borden, treasurer of Philadelphia's Fraternal Order of Police, showing the place to a visitor recently.

"It's hard on a police officer, and it compounds it even more if you come in and this is your building."

Here's what it's like. When corporals with desk jobs take a day off, sergeants flip a coin to see who fills in. The loser stays indoors.

"You'd rather be out on the street," said Sgt. Joe Jackson, referring to terrain so chaotic that it's been nicknamed "the Badlands" and "Oz."

"It's stressful," Jackson said yesterday as he shared the available work space in the grubby 25th District operations room with two other officers, a civilian secretary, a battalion of file cabinets and a beat-up refrigerator. The room made the set of NYPD Blue look opulent.

Officials and community leaders say there is no single reason why it's taking so long to get a new station. Just that, somewhere along the line, the urgency for a new station became subsumed by disagreements over where to put it.

The Rendell administration's original idea was to erect the new station on Westmoreland Street, a block west of the existing building. It's now a parking lot used by the 24th and 25th District officers. The nice thing about it was that the land was already in the city's hands.

Unfortunately, the block is surrounded by narrow, residential streets. Moreover, a police station there would face a row of brand-new low-income houses.

"How are officers going to be able to get out of there without hitting a child?" asks Donna Aument, chair of the local citizens' Police District Advisory Council.

Rick Mariano, the local city councilman, puts it bluntly: "It would be stupid to build it where they want to build it."

Finding an alternative, though, wasn't so simple. A faction of residents from the 24th District (Kensington, Port Richmond) lobbied for their own station, separate from the higher-crime 25th District (Fairhill, Hunting Park, east North Philadelphia, Feltonville, Juniata Park). But the administration said separate stations would cost too much.

Citizens' groups for the two districts drew up a list of six alternate locations. It took a while to settle on a favorite: a 93,000-square-foot empty lot on Whitaker Avenue, a half-block north of Erie Avenue.

"It's a good spot," said Mariano, who grew up about a mile away, in Juniata Park. He says it's large enough for a spacious building and parking lot. It's not near anyone's house. It's close to several wide streets.

With ward leaders, citizen groups and several of his fellow council members behind him, Mariano recommended the site to the administration last summer. What's happened since?

"You'd have to ask Public Property what the hang-up is," Mariano said.

Speaking for the Public Property Department, Kevin Feeley, Rendell's spokesman, said negotiations with a landowner had begun. Feeley refused to give details, saying disclosure might jeopardize a deal.

"We are trying to move as quickly and expeditiously as we can," Feeley said. But he noted it was a slow process: "We're by no means at the final stage. We will continue with the process in private. And if we're not successful, we'll continue to look for [another] site."

The fact that the administration earmarked $8 million for a new headquarters shows "it's a serious concern to us," Feeley said. "This station will be built. And soon."

Officer Charles Galvin, 52, was assigned to the district in 1966, when he was a rookie and the building was three years old. Over his time in the district - 28 years out of his 32 on the force - he has watched the building deteriorate with overuse.

"We'll get a new building," Galvin says, laughing, "but I won't live long enough to see it."

The 35-year-old station house was designed for a more sedate, more law-abiding age. The 24th District answered 95,000 calls for service last year, said the FOP's Borden, who was assigned to the district in the early 1970s.

"Back then, 45,000 was a busy year," Borden said. "I remember going a full week without a call."

It hasn't been Mayberry for a long time. The East Division detectives, seated side by side by side, like human rowhouses, handled 20,000 jobs last year in their grungy second-floor office.

Nearly 90 detectives, rotating three shifts each day, work the phones, write reports and interview witnesses and suspects in a room about 30 feet by 20 feet where you go begging for privacy, never mind a few inches to stretch your legs.

Graffiti on the stairway leading into the office: "Room of Gloom."

The leaky bathroom - a converted "witness room" just off the detectives' office - is a haven for roaches. A detective says she tries to clean her desk by wiping it with toilet paper because cleaning materials are in short supply. Then again, toilet paper is in short supply, too.

The heating system is so unreliable that the FOP routinely buys electric heaters for officers, and not just in this station house. "I must have purchased 20 or 30 heaters in the last four years," Borden said.

Nothing, however, compares to the juvenile detention cell just off the 24th District's operations room. It's a tile-lined box, about the size of a suburbanite's walk-in closet. Its lack of plumbing does not discourage its young occupants from relieving themselves inside.

"Some of them do it to spite us," said Capt. David Jardin.

Others undoubtedly do it because anything else seems like too much hassle. Contrary to regulations involving juvenile prisoners, officers can't see into the cell; the Plexiglas window is too scratched and beclouded for that. One sergeant said he was recently suspended without pay for three days because it escaped notice that a 10-year-old boy was stuck in there for 19 hours. The maximum for juvenile detention is supposed to be six hours.

The smell overpowers the adjacent operations room (where four or five people work - and eat - in the full force of its blast). It hits visitors walking through the headquarters' front door. It seeps into the scruffy courtroom in the building's center.

One enterprising official recently contacted the Philadelphia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, asking for samples of deodorizers used on dog kennels, Borden said. The solvent didn't make a dent in the 24th District stink.

Every so often, a janitor will swab down the cell's walls and floors, but that doesn't end the trouble. The dirty liquid sloshes into a crack in the floor and splashes down onto the men's locker room in the basement.

"You should see the puddles that sit here for a week," one officer said yesterday in the locker room, not far from a mirror and the police officers' reminder: Pride/Respect/Courtesy.

"You come in here to change your shirt, and you walk out smelling like urine."

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