By Andrew Maykuth
The Philadelphia Inquirer
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — Lambasted early this year for Philadelphia's rising crime rate, Mayor Street is on the verge of handing off the city to Michael Nutter with all forms of violent crime in retreat.
After four years of increases, reported violent crimes were down 8 percent as of Sunday, according to statistics compiled by the Police Department.
Homicides were 1 percent behind the figure for the same period last year; 2006's total was the highest in nine years. Shootings were down 14 percent. Robberies with a gun were down 12 percent.
Should trends continue for the last three weeks of the year, Nutter is likely to take office Jan. 7 with violent crime substantially lower than it was during the heat of the mayoral primary in the spring. He has promised to declare a crime emergency on his first day in office and employ a more aggressive law enforcement strategy.
"The citywide numbers are clearly heading in the right direction," said Joe Grace, Street's spokesman. "There's still more to be done, but despite the perception, we believe we've made this city safer."
Nutter said that the numbers were encouraging, and that his new police commissioner, Charles H. Ramsey, would analyze the trends and respond accordingly.
"I'm glad to hear things are moving in the right direction," he said last night. "But there's still too much crime."
He suggested that the intense public debate about crime during the political campaign had something to do with the drop. "By bringing attention to it, it has helped to sharpen the focus of the police and the administration," he said.
The homicide tally is still far greater than it was when Street entered office in 2000: The city recorded 319 killings that year, while this year the number is on a pace to come in slightly below last year's 406, the most since 1997.
But violent crime — homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults — might amount to a smaller number at the end of the year than the 22,812 that were recorded in Street's first year in office. As of Sunday, police had recorded 19,526 violent crimes.
Reported crimes tell only part of the story; the statistics are not a comprehensive review of arrests and convictions.
Nor, said Councilman Frank Rizzo, are the statistics an accurate measure of police morale, which he said had plunged under the Street administration because of a decline in the condition of vehicles, communications equipment and station houses.
"I don't have a lot of confidence in the statistics I've gotten out of this administration," said Rizzo, whose father was a police commissioner and mayor. "From what I hear, the police kind of snicker when they are told that things are better now than they were last year."
The decrease in violent crime is not isolated to Philadelphia. The Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington organization that last year raised alarms about a "gathering storm" of violent crime nationwide, reported reductions in violent crime for the first six months of this year in most of the 56 large cities it surveyed.
The organization said the decreases suggested that law enforcement countermeasures "are beginning to have an impact on crime."
In Philadelphia, one of the most prominent countermeasures this year was focused in Southwest Philadelphia's 12th Police District after a spike in homicides last winter. In March, the police deployed an additional 80 veteran officers to the district, and the heightened force has remained in place, said Grace, the mayor's spokesman.
The result, he said, is that the 12th District has reported a 10.6 percent decrease in violent crime this year, outpacing the citywide drop. Shootings in the district were down almost 38 percent from last year -- nearly three times the citywide rate.
Arrests and firearm seizures were also up across the city and in the 12th District, suggesting the police are being more aggressive.
But the decrease in the crime rate in Southwest Philadelphia has not translated into a dramatic loss of public fear, said State Sen. Anthony H. Williams, a Democrat who represents the area including the 12th District.
"It takes a long period of time for people to have a sense that it's safer because it has been unsafe for so long," he said.
Stephanie Dixon, a Democratic committeewoman who organized a community demonstration after the March slaying of Jovonne Stelly in Southwest Philadelphia, said her neighborhood had calmed down since the police deployment.
"It's been quiet, but I still don't go out at night," she said.
Lately the police have been less visible in her neighborhood. But she said her neighbors had been on good behavior anticipating Nutter's promised directive for police to step up their searches for illegal weapons — the so-called stop-and-frisk strategy.
"People figure there's going to be some action," she said. "They're minding their p's and q's with Nutter coming in as mayor."
Copyright 2007 Philadelphia Inquirer
Violent crime dips in Philadelphia