Philly's goal: 100 fewer murders a year

A "mobile force" of officers would extra shifts during the high-crime weekends or when violence spikes.

By Andrew Maykuth
Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — Aiming for nearly 100 fewer homicides and a 20 percent cut in the violent crime rate in his first year, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey this morning unveiled his much-anticipated crime-fighting strategy, including plans to redeploy 200 new officers into uniformed patrol by May 1.

Philadelphia's new commissioner said he plans to disband the elite Strategic Intervention Tactical Enforcement team - the SITE unit, which was created in 2006 by former Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson to flood violent areas at night. Ramsey said that the SITE unit had drained resources from regular patrols to the detriment of the local districts.

Ramsey instead plans to create a "mobile force" of officers who offer to work extra shifts during the high-crime summer weekends, when violent crime tends to spike.

The former Washington, D.C., police chief and Mayor Nutter unveiled the plans this morning to a closed session of the department's employees at the Wachovia Center, followed by a briefing for reporters.

Ramsey, who has held a series of town-hall meetings while assembling his report, has made no secret of his desire to shift more of the department's 6,600 officers into high-crime areas.

Ramsey said he would concentrate resources into nine of the city's 23 police districts that were responsible for 65 percent of the city's homicides: the 12th, 18th and 19th Districts in Southwest Division; the 14th, 35th and 39th Districts in the city's Northwest Division; the 15th District in the lower Northeast; the 22d District in North Philadelphia and the 25th District in the Eastern Division.

The captains from those nine districts will meet with the department's top commanders three mornings every week to compare notes on crime trends, a variation on the daily meetings that Ramsey conducted in Washington that he said made the department more nimble in responding to crime.

In his inaugural address Jan. 7, Nutter promised to reduce homicides by 30 percent to 50 percent over the next few years. Yesterday, Ramsey set a similarly aggressive target: He said he would aim to cut homicides by a quarter in 2008. The city recorded 392 homicides last year, among the highest big-city homicide rates in the country.

In an interview yesterday, Ramsey downplayed expectations that his plan would requite a major shake-up of the force.

"There's nothing fancy about it," he said. He added that the plan addresses "basic, fundamental things that can be sustained over time."

Ramsey compiled the report under a tight deadline after Nutter declared a "crime emergency" at his inaugural.

In response to the mayor's directive to review the department's policy on the use of deadly force, Ramsey said he would call for greater training of officers on responding to threats. Nutter issued the directive following public outcry over three fatal shootings by police this year.

Nutter's urgency to address law enforcement crime comes after a political campaign that was dominated by the city's escalating crime and homicide rate, which increased for four years under Mayor John Street's administration before declining last year.

During the campaign, Nutter promised to add 500 officers in three years to the department and anticipated that such an expansion would add $130 million in costs over five years. How Nutter will fulfill that commitment is unclear.

The department's annual budget is now about $500 million.

Ramsey's plan borrows somewhat from the approach he took in Washington, where he was chief from 1998 to 2006. Hired from Chicago to retool what he called a "dysfunctional" department, Ramsey took five months to assemble a plan for the Metropolitan Police Department: redeployment of 400 officers to the streets; the elimination of several support bureaus; new training programs, and an infusion of money to update aging facilities and equipment.

In Philadelphia, however, both Ramsey and Nutter have made it abundantly clear in public meetings that they do not want to antagonize a department that they are trying to motivate while trying to drive down the city's crime rate. In each public session, Nutter coaxed audiences to give the police a round of applause.

Ramsey's plan, which was reviewed by the mayor over the weekend, also incorporated some of Nutter's campaign promises: to increase the number of surveillance cameras and to establish a 311 call center for non-emergency nuisance complaints, including loud noise, illegal parking and dangerous dogs, that now distract emergency dispatchers.

Nutter also promised to saturate "targeted enforcement zones" with directed patrols and to step up the use of the controversial "stop-and-frisk" tactic to search for illegal weapons.

Ramsey told the public gatherings that he would put more emphasis on "community policing" strategies that require officers to maintain closer contact with the public and take action on "quality-of-life" violations.

Some of the new officers who will be deployed to the streets will come from a class of 114 recruits scheduled to graduate from the Police Academy in April. Ramsey has also said he would like to move some officers from desk jobs to the streets, replacing them with civilians.

Ramsey also wants to upgrade the department's technology and to improve its aging district offices and the 45-year-old Police Headquarters building on Race Street.

Ramsey has already issued BlackBerries to some senior commanders. He has indicated that other electronic improvements are also in store - including some that are not exactly cutting-edge.

One such deficiency came to light during Ramsey's town hall meeting in West Philadelphia, where community leaders complained that they were unable to reach district commanders because their telephone lines were busy.

"We don't have voice mail?" Ramsey asked, rolling his eyes, prompting chuckles from the audience. "This is the 21st century, isn't it?"

Copyright 2008 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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