Philli: Increased police presence is praised
By Barbara Boyer
Inquirer Staff Writer
Sam Porter appreciates the relative tranquillity in his section of South Philadelphia in recent weeks, as he walks block after block and eyes troubled corners. He has always been quick to call police about drug dealers, corner crowds, or cars circling suspiciously.
He gets a faster response these days. On Nov. 30, Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson ordered scores of police into Porter's area as part of a citywide effort, starting in parts of South Philadelphia, to stem violent crime.
Porter and other residents say that in five weeks they have seen a healthy change - one buttressed by preliminary police statistics. Although 2006 began with eight homicides in the city within five days, it appears there have been fewer serious problems in South Philadelphia.
"They have done a great job so far," said Porter, 38, a coordinator with the city's Boys and Girls Club who lives near 17th and Fitzwater Streets. "It's quieter than it has been."
Porter is among a growing number of community activists working with police trying to gain control of neighborhoods ravaged by violence. Residents, he declared, need to take responsibility to help police become more effective. Last year, 380 people were murdered in the city, the worst year since 1997, when more than 400 were killed.
To the Point Breeze section of South Philadelphia, Johnson sent Highway Patrol, narcotics and warrant officers; detectives; and more patrols. He sought help from the city's Adult Probation and Parole Department and the federal marshal's office. Dozens of others - including community leaders, antiviolence advocates and politicians - promised support.
Point Breeze was the pilot program that police say is being duplicated on a smaller scale in other parts of the city.
Porter, who lives on the outskirts of Point Breeze, walks that neighborhood and several others several times a week. On Wednesday night, he took delight in pointing out that the intersection of Tasker and Taney Streets, a notorious hangout, was peaceful.
Mike Harris, who lives on Moore Street, said there had been a "remarkable difference" in some spots. But in others, he said, "it's business as usual."
"You still see where some guys are hanging on the corner. That's where a lot of these guys feel most comfortable," he said.
Harris said he was concerned that as police scaled back in Point Breeze, crime would return if residents did not stay involved.
"Who's to say that in a couple of months this won't pick up again?" Harris asked.
At police headquarters, Johnson expressed similar concerns. He said that although the area would not lose all the additional resources, he remained cautious.
"I think it's still too early to judge whether it's been effective in only five weeks," Johnson said. "We're giving a thousand percent, and we'll continue to give a thousand percent."
Inspector Stephen Johnson, who oversees the South Police Division, said preliminary Point Breeze statistics comparing November with December showed significant drops in some areas.
Although police would not provide specific numbers, they said robberies involving guns were down 24 percent in Point Breeze, other robberies were down 14 percent, and aggravated assaults with guns were down 50 percent. There was one homicide in November and none in December. Other crime categories remained the same.
"We're seeing significant changes," the inspector said. "I think you can attribute that to the deployment."
In turn, he said, police are building a better relationship with residents often reluctant to help investigators.
On Nov. 7, South Philadelphia High student Daniel Starling, 16, was killed after school when a gunman released a barrage of bullets into a crowd in the 1900 block of Snyder Avenue. Witnesses refused to cooperate with police until authorities showed up in force Nov. 30. Police have since arrested the accused triggerman and an alleged accomplice.
The commissioner said that there was nothing complicated about this type of policing, that it simply focused resources to become more effective.
"We're not miracle workers," he said. "We have a pretty good idea how to solve some of these problems."
For community activists like Porter, Dorothy Johnson-Speight of Mothers in Charge, and Bilal Qayyum of Men United for a Better Philadelphia, the increased police presence has helped renew energy among those trying to stop the violence and those who have felt it.
Johnson-Speight, who lost her son in 2001, said she would never give up trying to stem the lawlessness.
"As long as I am breathing, I will be doing this," she said. "For our loved ones and to save other ones."
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