Sunday, 22 September 2013

Philly by Foot

It is astonishing, at the peak of the “Stop and Frisk” scandal, to learn that my old hometown for over fifty years has a murder rate four times of that New York City! (“Policing Philadelphia: Boots on the Street: How foot patrols keep tough neighborhoods safer,” The Economist, August 24th, 2013.) 

Of course we had eased into Philly, prefixing our tenure there with three years in the new burb of Levittown, PA, which dishonored its innovative honor by keeping Philly’s Negroes out. (They were shamefully shifted to Levittown, N.J. And we could only move into Morris Milgrim’s Greenbelt Knoll in 1959 (Philly’s first experiment in racial integration, 1956) because one wife felt uncomfortable in this neighborhood! 

Imagine, neighbors like the nationally famous furniture designer Jim Camp, the first black congressman Robert N.C. Nix, the contentious Baptist preacher Leon Sullivan whose name is famous in South Africa because his idealism motivated their rejection of apartheid, and the first black Fire Station chief Roosevelt Barlow. 

A video about Greenbelt Knoll

Nor shall I forget our founder’s canny seizure of a plot of 100 year old trees marvelously sited between the sideline railroad track to a local Shopping Mall and a swatch of World War II worker housing. We rarely experienced Philly’s urban dangers except when, say, returning from a late night Penn or Temple university assignment.

Indeed, the notoriously tough 22nd police district included Temple University where my then wife Mary taught. The secret was to send a pair of cops patrolling the streets. One policeman driving a cruiser swiftly up and down the same streets is no way as effective as two rookies on foot in the same troubled neighborhood. Soon the locals know them, and they know the locals. Surprises soon trained one pair, Mike Farrell and Brian Nolan, to investigate: They ran into a small brown horse munching on thorn bushes in a corner lot. A passerby informed them where the owner lived nearby. His grandmother owned the corral, and they insisted that horse gets fresh water. A potential crisis disappears!

Farrell and Nolan, blue collar Irish, easily got friendly with the locals. Their turf is no picnic: a four square mile of densely packed terrace houses and public housing projects. Last year there were 35 murders and many robberies, assaults and crack deals.” The pavement is littered with broken glass, crack baggies and ketchup packets Hip-hop and soul blast out of open windows and parked cars.The streetscape is punctuated by barbers’ shops, storefront churches, kerbside cookouts, card games under gazebos, makeshift basketball backboards nailed to telephone poles and burned out, abandoned homes.” (p.36.)

They generate trust by palavering with the locals. “Jazz the Barber” digs them. ”They makes the area safer.” He expounds in his salon.” There used to be lots of robberies and home invasions around here.But now the police are seen, as opposed to when they’re just driving past. I think it’s cool.” White cops in black neighborhoods soon feel at home. They kick ball with the kids, shoot the bull with families on their front steps, or rouse drunks from the steps of boarded up shops. Sergeant Bisarat Worede who has been in charge of foot patrols since late 2010 , says walking the beat is revealing rookies, especially because it shows them there are also good people in bad neighborhoods.

Best of all are the statistics: In 2013 there had been 7 homicides in the 22nd, compare with 20 at that point last year. Burglaries had dropped from 352 to 283, 55 people shot instead of 77! The new strategy was based on a Temple U study in 2009. In targeted areas, violent crime decreased 23 percent. But statistics have been reducing everywhere. People are older. Private security has boomed: more cameras, burglar alarms, and car immobilizers.

Jerry Ratcliffe, Director of Temple’s Centre for Security and Crime Science, believes patrolling is most effective if the pair revisits several times each shift. Foot patrols work best in dense neighborhoods where they can’t afford air-conditioning and gather outside to socialize. Alas, drunken disagreements generate violence. “Half the people shot in Philadelphia are shot within two blocks of their address,” observes Ratcliffe.

Not all the locals dig the walking cops. Nasi Brown, sitting on the curb, observes when our pair passes by, "They walk around with attitude. They’re attacking the wrong issues. Don’t nobody in the ghetto manufactures drugs.” But others, like Kennan Jones disagrees with the naysayers: "Well, me and you can talk right here right now without no gunshots going off.” Pairing off doesn’t solve all the problems. But it sure helps.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sure is amazing at how much rich history Philly is filled with. Thanks for the interesting read!
-Jackie @ Philadelphia real estate