What happens on the streets of North Philly shows precisely why the murder frenzy rages on — snuffing out lives, terrorizing neighborhoods, threatening our future. There is a solution. Why won't we try it?
“A male is beating a female between two buildings,” the dispatcher says. “13th and Lehigh.”
It's just past 2 a.m. on a Friday night, and police officer Dennis Stephens, a 16-year veteran, is two hours into his shift patrolling North Philadelphia's 22nd District. So far, the night has been quiet, but now the bars are letting out, and things are starting to heat up. Stephens flicks on the squad car's lights and siren. He hits the gas. Here we go.
We charge down Lehigh Avenue, barreling through red lights, hitting over 60 miles per hour, which may be nothing on a highway, but on a city street is like riding a rocket ship.
We pull up to the intersection of 13th and Lehigh. But there's a problem: No victim. No perpetrator. No witnesses. Stephens looks between all the buildings. He searches a nearby parking lot. He circles the block. He'd ask people if they saw anything, but there are no people out here at all.
“If it's going to be anywhere, it's back here,” Stephens says, turning the car into a dark, narrow pathway that is Oakdale Street. “They usually drag the hookers back here.” He shines the headlight attached to his door into a concrete alcove that's nestled behind a crumbling house. It is a place that whispers Bad things have happened here. It, too, is empty.
Finally, he gives up. Elapsed time since he took the call: about 20 minutes. Effect on the city's homicide crisis: probably none. Percentage of 911 calls that turn out like this one: more than you think.
EVERYTHING YOU NEED to know about Philadelphia's current murder wave — the out-of-control nature of it, the futility of our response to it — may be encapsulated in this fact: Within 24 hours of Mayor Street's emergency televised address last July about the city's surging homicide rate, in which he urged the city's youth to put down their guns, five murders were committed. Among the victims was 17-year-old Terrence Adams, who was gunned down near an elementary school.
It's been that kind of year for Philadelphia. Many large cities are basking in the glow of the Great American Crime Drop of the 1990s — most notably New York, where the number of murders in 2006 is likely to be about what it was when Leave It to Beaver first aired. But not here. Here, they're shooting like they haven't in a decade. Mornings and nights, weekdays and weekends, the bullets fly from cheap guns in dangerous neighborhoods for reasons so petty they boggle the mind. He looked at me. He stole my food. He called me a bitch.
There's nothing new about this, of course. One of the first things police noticed about the crime wave of the late 1980s and early 1990s was the leap in the homicide rate among inner-city males under age 25. The guns were more powerful, the killers were younger, and the number of deaths from what urban residents fear most — random attacks and stray bullets — soared as much as Death By Insignificant Drug Debt and Death By Disrespect.
Some cities have conquered this problem; some haven't. For those in the latter category, like Philadelphia, the same question becomes more and more desperate as the years of senseless killing roll on: What can we do? The answers here tend to reflect a predictable liberal/conservative fissure: liberals arguing for tighter gun-purchasing laws, conservatives for stiffer prison terms.
But apart from that debate is a body of research about gun crime of which most Philadelphians are completely unaware. Its proponents include social scientists, police commissioners, and even the National Academy of Sciences. It focuses on how the deployment of uniformed police officers at certain places and at certain times can deter potential killers from possessing firearms in the first place, and why that can lead to major reductions in impulsive shootings. The theories are based on the experimental work of a criminologist who has influenced police departments literally around the world, and who is based in Philadelphia. But except for the four years in which John Timoney was police commissioner, his ideas seem to have been completely ignored by the Philadelphia police department.
A night on patrol in one of America's deadliest neighborhoods will show you that.
“NOBODY'S ANSWERED THIS YET.”
My Friday night begins at midnight in the cramped operations room of the 22nd District station house, where Lieutenant Jamill Taylor, 35, is staring at a computer screen. He has the perpetual look of worry you'd expect of a man whose life is devoted to protecting the citizens of a very violent place. The screen he watches shows a queue of 911 calls awaiting response. The list is an index of a neighborhood's misery: Theft in Progress. Vandalism in Progress. Theft in Progress. Rape in Progress. Theft in Progress. Domestic. Domestic. Theft in Progress. These calls are given a priority level from one to five — one being an officer in trouble, five being an MC, or Meet the Complainant — and officers are dispatched as available. There are only 12 to 20 officers on patrol on a given shift, which means that depending on the priority of the call, the delay can be as long as three or four hours.
The 22nd is in the heart of North Philadelphia. The neighborhood is 97 percent African-American, the median house value is $20,390, less than three percent of the population has a bachelor's degree, and whatever economic forces justified home construction here in the early 1900s vanished a long time ago. The problems this district must contend with are almost too numerous to count, but as in the rest of Philadelphia, the preoccupation is with young men and handguns.
“You have to realize, the victims and the shooters are getting younger and younger,” Taylor says. “You're talking 13, 14, 15. There's a lack of respect for life. And so much of it is just neighborhood stuff. What happened in school that day. Maybe some guys showed up from another school and started something. Some things are related to drug territory. When you don't get cooperation, it's hard to tell. You have to drop the charges because you don't have anyone to stand them up. It makes our job harder, because the same people are selling drugs, doing robberies, all of it.”
This is one of the more demoralizing aspects of policing this city: The culture of the street hates the cops. Never mind that most of the officers are African-American, and that more than a few of them grew up in this neighborhood. Perfectly law-abiding teenagers wear STOP SNITCHIN' t-shirts, cops are taunted for being sellouts or “trying to be white,” and witnesses and victims won't talk at crime scenes, let alone show up at court. Because of this, a vast swath of the criminal element — muggers, rapists, even murderers — sees charges dropped or reduced to the one crime for which a police officer's testimony alone just might provide leverage for plea-_bargained prison time: possession of a firearm. This is especially frustrating for veteran officers like Taylor. A dangerous police district is like a small town: Very few new faces show up, and the same career criminals are arrested over and over. They are then returned to the street over and over.
Taylor hands me a bulletproof vest. I sign a waiver of liability, then walk to the parking lot with Dennis Stephens. Stephens is 43, but he looks younger. He grew up in this neighborhood. When he tells how he joined the police and chose this neighborhood to patrol because he wants to make a difference, you believe him. Like almost every officer I've seen tonight, from supervisors to clerks, he is African-_American. Two seconds next to him, and you realize this is a serious man who understands what it means to patrol the 22nd on a summer night. We will be spending the midnight-to-8-a.m. shift together. “You know the first rule,” he says as we enter the squad car. “If I ask you to do something, you do it. We talk about it later.”
Our first call takes us to a Rite Aid. The manager has reported someone trying to pass counterfeit bills. That's technically theft, and at the time of the call it was technically in progress, which means Stephens must respond. When we arrive, a bored security guard and the manager explain it was a mistake; the call is “unfounded.” This is a big part of police work: the utterly pointless call. Stephens pulls away.
We drive up Susquehanna Avenue. We are in the middle of the North Philadelphia just about every Philadelphian knows as a Place Where You Don't Want To Be. In your imagination, it resembles the ghettos from Hill Street Blues or The Corner: filled with roving gangs, drug dealers on corners, addicts hunting down a cheap blast, prostitutes waving down cars. Up close, it's the opposite. You're struck by … absence. Long, treeless blocks with all but one or two houses abandoned. Vacant lots. No businesses save the occasional Korean deli.
When people talk about the inner city needing a return to “community policing,” perhaps they picture a friendly officer walking through a neighborhood like this one, saying hi to good citizens and busting bad ones, maybe taking a moment to set straight a kid who's on the fence between joining a gang or going to college. The reality of North Philadelphia at night is that crime and people are dots on a barren landscape. A cop walking through this neighborhood would spend most of his or her shift in a wasteland. A car is the only way to get to where the victims are, especially when you get a call like the one coming through Stephens's radio.
“Black male with a Tec-9,” says the dispatcher, giving an address on Master Street. “Possible snipers.”
Stephens flips on the lights and the sirens and hits the gas, and we're flying across 24th Street.
“What did he mean about a sniper?”
“Sounds like they're firing to scare the police away,” says Stephens. “They do that because they see us busting someone and they don't want their friend to get locked up. They'll fire just to get police out of the area.”
“Over your heads?”
“Right. They don't fire at us because we tend to fire back.”
We turn and continue on 24th Street, heading south, as Stephens and the dispatcher mutter back and forth. He hits the brakes, and we turn east on Cecil B. Moore Avenue. There's been a change of plans.
“There's an officer who needs assistance,” says Stephens. “Things happen quickly out here.”
I expect to see an officer in a gunfight, but we pull up to the Hans Enterprise deli to find something else: a second-year female officer unsure of how to handle two curfew violators. The boys appear to be eight and 12 years old. Neither wants to give his name. Neither wants to give his address. Earlier in the year, Mayor Street made curfew enforcement — 10:30 Sunday through Thursday, midnight on weekends — part of his strategy to combat crime. For anyone who envisioned young Crips and Bloods being locked up en masse, this is what you get: two police officers on a Friday night in the middle of North Philadelphia, trying to deal with two children walking out of a deli. Curfew rules actually target the parents: If there are three violations, they're summoned to court, and may have to pay a fine. The rationale is that parents, wanting to avoid that, will act more responsibly and keep their kids inside after midnight. The possibility of enforcing this assumes, of course, that the kids are giving up the information, a.k.a. snitchin', which these two aren't.
Finally a heavyset man, perhaps tipped off by a watchful neighbor, shows up. He explains that no, he's not the parent, but he's the uncle, these kids just wanted some candy, they live RIGHT THERE, so can he please just take them home?
Stephens won't have it. Whether it's because a reporter is watching or because he's old-school and does things by the book, he manages to get the kids' names and addresses and, following procedure, fills out a Juvenile Contact Report, plus a Form 7548A, all of which eats up an additional 20 minutes of crime-fighting time.
“Unfortunately, with a curfew violation, this is the paperwork,” he says.
The respite is broken by another call. This one's the bread-and-butter of the patrol officer's life: the domestic disturbance. We drive to the 2400 block of Gratz Street.
“Somebody called for the police?” Stephens asks an _exhausted-looking man sitting on the steps of a two-story rowhouse.
“Man, that was like four hours ago,” he says.
“The dispatch record shows it was one hour ago,” says Stephens. I can't help thinking that every citizen should have to look at that dispatch queue Lieutenant Taylor showed me.
“Well, everything's fine now,” the man says.
This is the result of most domestic calls in the 22nd: nothing. By the time police arrive, the argument has cooled down, or the participant who has a pending warrant or is on probation fled the moment 911 was called. Stephens fills out an incident report. Then we drive to Doris's.
Doris's is a candy-and-soda store on the first floor of a corner rowhouse. Stephens waves Doris out of the store, which is still doing a brisk business at one in the morning. She walks to the car.
“This is going to be a problem at two or three in the morning,” Stephens says. He points to a group of teenagers sitting on the steps to the building's side entrance. “That one in the red shirt? He's out here all night hustling.”
The group begins to saunter away. The kid in the red shirt and a male friend stop half a block down the street, chatting and laughing casually, as if the squad car's headlights aren't on them like spotlights at the Ice Capades.
“I know your niece lives up there, and I've talked to her about it,” Stephens says to Doris. “She can have people on her step if she wants to, but that one, he's dirty. You know what he's doing.”
“I'll have a nice long talk with her,” Doris says.
This is precisely the sort of thing we all dream a police officer will do. He knows the neighborhood. He knows the players. He sees that there's a problem brewing — drug sales plus a crowd — but rather than wait till there's a dead body or a shot fired, he intercedes, calmly but with authority, dispersing a group of loiterers before any trouble goes down.
The problem, from the standpoint of crime prevention, is that a) Stephens must continue to respond to 911 calls and therefore may not return, a fact of which the gentleman in the red shirt is doubtless aware; and b) even if Stephens and all of North Philadelphia knows this guy is selling drugs, Stephens cannot arrest him unless he sees the drugs, which is unlikely unless he's in plainclothes conducting surveillance, ideally with a video camera, so as to provide 12 citizens from a jury pool that finds even DNA matches worthy of reasonable doubt with evidence they'll find sufficient for a conviction. And what if someone in the neighborhood is getting compensated in cocaine or cash for permitting Mr. Red Shirt to sell his wares along the busy corridor in front of Doris's? You see the limits of this impromptu moment of “broken windows” policing.
“But let me ask you this,” says Doris. “What about my Dumpster? I got cited for that. Why do y'all want to go and spend time on something like that?”
We look at the small, shabby waste container, probably not an actual Dumpster, sitting on the sidewalk.
“That's not us. That's Neighborhood Services. We don't deal with that.”
Doris gives a vacant stare.
“You should call Neighborhood Services.”
Still the vacant stare.
“I'll be by here later,” Stephens says.
“I'll talk to my niece.”
We move on. It's nearly 2 a.m. This is when the 911 calls start pouring in, and the patrol officers will be getting to crime scenes in minutes. Not that it means much to the murderers of this city. There's a dirty secret about 911 that law enforcement has known for decades, and it's pretty easy to sum up: 911 may be an easy phone number for the public to remember, it may centralize all calls and enable them to be tracked, it may even get an ambulance someplace in time to save a life, but it sure doesn't do much for catching criminals.
THE 911 SYSTEM WAS founded on the two great principles of law enforcement: incapacitation and deterrence. That is, if police could get to a crime quickly enough, a criminal would be arrested, locked away, and unable to commit more crimes. And if enough criminals were incapacitated due to rapid response, the word would get out, and crime would be deterred.
A corollary to this was the notion of “police omnipresence.” According to this theory, randomized patrol by police squad cars would instill in a neighborhood an overall sense of police presence and authority, and thus make a potential criminal think twice before breaking the law.
What no one anticipated was how long it takes people to call 911. Crimes that actually get reported — only around 50 percent of violent crimes, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics — overwhelmingly aren't brought to the attention of police until well after they've happened. George Kelling, one of the first criminologists to study 911, has described some of the scenarios. A wife is attacked by her husband, and she calls her sister first to see what she should do. A man is punched in the jaw and kicked on the sidewalk until he gives up his wallet, and he's in shock for 10 minutes before he makes it to a phone. Shots are fired on your block, and you're waiting in the bathroom until it's quiet long enough for you to come out and call the cops. You're a cashier in a store, and you get held up. You want to call the cops right away, but you wait till you're sure the gunman is gone before picking up that phone.
All of this results in an average reporting delay of 41 minutes. This number factors in the many serious crimes that aren't discovered by victims until hours after they've _occurred — including many types of theft. But even if you eliminate the long reporting delays for theft, you find that a lot of victims of violent crimes wait five minutes or more to call the police. That's more than enough time for most perpetrators to flee. The first serious study of 911 showed that the probability of arrest due to rapid response was three percent.
When the study was published, in the mid-'70s, law enforcement officials across the country were stunned. It not only contradicted the entire premise of modern policing; it called into question the massive budget allotments for computers, telephone lines, radios and squad cars. The National Institute of Justice funded further studies in four _cities — Rochester, Peoria, San Diego and Jacksonville — and the results didn't change: The rate of arrest due to emergency calls was 29 per 1,000 — 2.9 percent. The answer was the system Philadelphia and other cities have today: “enhanced 911.” Enhanced 911 shows the phone number and address of the person calling. Police then prioritize calls to ensure that the most urgent situations are addressed first. Operators in some cities attempt to divert non-emergency callers to social service agencies.
All of which has made no difference. “Omnipresence” turns out to be nothing but fanciful speculation, as Kelling discovered that the passing of a squad car, even in a high- crime neighborhood, is an event most people simply don't remember. Violent crimes still start and end in a few seconds, and the robbed, raped and assaulted still wait a few critical minutes before calling the cops.
Politicians are the first to trumpet tiny reductions in 911 response times. But what do those reductions mean? That a Form 7548A was filled out in a parked squad car 10 seconds earlier? It seems strange that after decades of research, mayors and councilmen, police commissioners and editorial boards remain obsessed with tiny fluctuations in 911 response time. That Stephens got us to 13th and Lehigh in less than one minute means nothing if the 911 caller who heard the screaming woman waited even five minutes to make the call. I suspect the folks living in dangerous areas know all of this intuitively, hence the 1990 Public Enemy song “911 Is a Joke,” and hence the suspicion that even though calling the police is the best available option for addressing crime, the police, even as embodied by outstanding patrol officers like Dennis Stephens, can't catch the criminals, and that even when they nab one here or there, they are acting arbitrarily, or worse.
SO AGAIN WE MOVE on, still having made no headway in the youth homicide crisis. And again the dispatch crackles. It's another domestic disturbance. We drive to 16th and Huntingdon.
On the way, I ask about the Korean delis. When I was in college at Temple, I used to pass by one or two while riding the bus; I would look into their shabby waiting rooms and wonder what sort of a life they offered. The neighborhood doesn't exactly love you. Political groups accuse you of poisoning and exploiting the ghetto. You risk your life for your income, and it's hard to imagine that when people ask you what you do for a living, you're proud of saying you supply the underclass with fried wings and off-brand malt liquor. The names are still a blend of bad grammar and Orientalism — New Superstar Restaurant, Sunny Chinese American, King Kong Deli, or, more directly, COLD BEER SEAFOOD — though now the exteriors all have massive six-foot windows, where years ago you could see into them only when the doors were open.
“The windows are from an agreement between the Korean business owners and the police department,” Stephens says. “It used to be there'd be a robbery going on, and we'd be out here and wouldn't even know it.” Later, I'll ask another officer how the owners of these businesses avoid getting ambushed when they head home for the night. She'll tell me this: “They don't go home. They live above them. They buy the building, but then they have to buy the building next door, because what the crackheads figured out was that these buildings are so cheap, you could chip away the wall with a piece of metal and crawl through the sheetrock and rob them. Now the deli owners also have a house in the suburbs, but you never know when they're going back to it.”
“Somebody called the police?” Stephens asks two women sitting on a stoop.
One, looking to be in her early 40s, leans into Stephens's window. “My kids' father is threatening MY LIFE. He was coming around the premises threatening ME.”
“Have you got a restraining order?” Stephens asks.
“That's what I want,” she says.
Stephens explains how to obtain the restraining order. How the office is at 1301 Filbert Street. That it's open all night. You have to speak to a judge, but don't be nervous about it. Then once you get that order, be smart, you know? When he comes to visit the kids, that's when you call 911. And if you have that order, we can arrest him. But remember, when you go to get the order, bring his address, because he has to be served.
“I don't know his address,” she says.
“You don't know your son's father's address?”
“What about his mom?” Stephens says. “Will his mom give you his address?”
“His mom WON'T protect ME.” She pulls away from the window and looks up and down the street. “See, he's lurking around. That's invading somebody's space, is what that is. He said he's going to KILL me. Threatened to kill the kids. He's just lurking around.”
Stephens urges her to file a private criminal complaint, the form that's necessary for her son's father to be charged with a crime. But the conversation is all theater. No one's filing a report; no one's heading right down to Filbert Street.
“Write that down,” she says to Stephens. “Private criminal complaint. That's like, he's threatening my life. There go my son right there.”
A shirtless boy, no older than 10, is jogging up the street. It's nearly 3 a.m. He runs up to his mother. He looks at Stephens, but his expression is different from that of the older boys. Around here, it seems like every person between 12 and 50 gives the police a stare of cold, undisguised hatred. They get it in their squad cars, they get it while walking into a crime scene, they get it while helping an old lady cross the street. But from this child, still young, leaning through the car window, there's only the look any little boy gives a fireman or a cop. A little curiosity. A little awe.
“Burglary in progress,” the dispatcher says. He gives an address two blocks from the police station. Stephens says goodbye to the woman and her son, and we drive off. Less than a minute later, we stop at a corner rowhouse. The front door of the house is bashed in. The burglar alarm is squealing. The robbers might still be inside. Stephens draws his gun. He points his flashlight into the dark house and walks in.
More squad cars arrive. “Get behind the car!” a female officer screams at me. She pulls out her gun and runs inside. A few minutes pass. “It's clear!” the female officer shouts. She walks out with Stephens.
I step through the broken glass into the house. It's modest but tidy. There's a giant blue IT'S A BOY! banner draped across the living room. Upstairs, there are children's names written on stars on the bedroom doors. Denise. Troy. Photos of family members are on every surface.
On the floor, near the rock that crashed through the door, is a note. It was presumably written by the mother to her children.
DON'T OPEN EVEN IF SOMEONE KNOCKS DON'T OPEN! DON'T LOOK OUT. IF SOMEONE SAY THEIR THE COPS DON'T OPEN. CALL ME RIGHT AWAY OR CALL DE, TERREL
“What do you think the story is?” I ask a female officer.
“Drama with a baby's father, usually,” she says. There's boredom in her voice, and why not? In an affluent neighborhood, the events that led to a rock through a door and a note to children telling them to beware of everyone, including police impersonators, would trigger a community meeting and possibly the appearance of the Action News van. On North 20th Street, it's just another call.
“Or maybe she called the police about the drug dealers and they're paying her back,” the officer continues. “You see all the curtains are closed.”
I look up. Every window is completely covered.
“Also, maybe people are mad because she got this house for free.”
“What do you mean?”
“It's Habitat for Humanity. People get jealous. Maybe there was a fight. Could be a lot of things.”
Inside the house, officers are calling every phone number they can find. They call what seems to be the owner's work number, and reach her supervisor. She says the owner is on vacation. Other officers reach family members, but they all refuse to come and watch over the house.
A white male officer, the only one I've seen on patrol all night, agrees to wait inside the house. If no one shows up after a few hours, when his supervisor gives the word, he'll have to leave. The door will be wide open to every addict and thief lucky enough to pass by.
Stephens and I get back into the car. It's 3:44 a.m. If anything we've done tonight has had an effect on whether the young men of Philadelphia shoot each other, I sure haven't seen it. That may be about to change.
“Shot black male,” the dispatcher says.
The lights and sirens are back on. Stephens is tense as we pull up to the scene. “Don't get out of the car,” he says.
We arrive to find a street filled with squad cars and their flashing blue and white lights. A crowd mills up and down. People crane their necks to see the star of the show. He has short dreadlocks and massive deltoids, and is wearing a white tank top. He's maybe 25. Two weary paramedics are trying to lead him into the ambulance.
“I'm STILL walking!” he shouts. “What? I was shot. BUT I'M STILL WALKING. … “
Stephens looks around. Something moves him toward an elderly woman.
“That's my nephew they shot,” she whispers.
“You don't know nothing!” a little boy screams at her from down the street. He runs toward her. “You don't know nothing!”
“Who was it?” Stephens asks quietly. I can't hear the response. But within a few moments, we're back in the car, telling the dispatcher that the shooter fled in a white Plymouth van. We're driving fast. So fast you feel an adrenaline rush that goes beyond anything you may have felt catching that touchdown pass in high school or just before you gave that big speech. It comes not only from the speed, but from knowing that you're looking for a wanted man who probably has a loaded weapon and not much to lose.
“You got your seatbelt on? We're about to go real fast.”
We fly up Lehigh Avenue. It's only a minute or so before the dispatcher radios in some good news: The van has been stopped. “They have the minivan and the gun,” he says. In another city, this might give us a moment to talk about the weather, football, or what we think about the problem of urban violence. But this is Philadelphia, which means we're on our way to the next emergency.
“RAPE IN PROGRESS. A naked woman being raped is in the street screaming,” the voice tells us.
We're back on Lehigh Avenue, zooming toward North 17th Street. There's no reduction in speed. You can tell Stephens really, really wants to get there in time, but good intentions and the driving skills of Jeff Gordon aren't enough. The corner is as empty here as it was at 13th and Lehigh.
From his in-car laptop, Stephens retrieves the address of the 911 call. We exit the car. There's a dead cat splattered in the street. Stephens knocks on the door. A woman, about 45, opens up.
“Everything okay, ma'am?”
“Yeah, you know, I saw this woman out here, and I just felt bad for her, so I gave her something to wear.”
“What was it?”
“Some yellow striped pants. They're pajamas. And a blue shirt.”
“Thank you,” Stephens says, moving quickly back to the car, about to begin the search.
“One more thing!” the woman yells from the porch. “She said she don't want the police all up on her!”
Stephens looks at me.
“You heard that, right?” he asks. The look on his face says it all. You risk your life to bring some order to the chaos, and what do you get? Everyone is against you, even a naked raped woman who was screaming in the street.
Searching for the victim requires us to drive slowly, look intently down long, dark blocks, and scrutinize the stray groups of people who are out at four in the morning. All the while, we get The Stare. Do they know we're looking for a formerly naked woman who was raped and screaming in the street? No. They only see a white guy and a black guy in a cop car creeping along, giving them the once-over.
“Have you seen a woman in striped pants and a navy shirt?” Stephens asks two women. From the look on their faces, he may as well have asked, “Have you seen two Martians tap-dancing?” They shake their heads and move on.
“You know, our response time is really good,” Stephens says. “But this is what we contend with. Even the complainants don't want help.”
Before we move on, Stephens gets a call from Lieutenant Taylor. He wants to speak to me. We drive and meet Taylor on the side street where the white van was stopped and the shooter and an accomplice were arrested. An immediate arrest after a shooting is a relatively rare victory, but already Taylor has concerns.
“The victim was very cocky. He had an attitude. Now the issue arises, can we get him to pick out the shooter? If not, we have no aggravated assault case.”
“What if the witnesses identify him?” I ask.
“The independent witnesses refused to talk, so that's down the drain. Our best hope is that we have the gun charge. These are the types of guys we're trying to get off the street. Normally it takes an investigation to find them, but this time we have everything. All we need is to take the shooter to the hospital and hear the complainant say, 'That's him.'”
“I don't know. But we remember this guy. We've arrested him before. He has a record. Like I said, it's the same guys doing the same crimes over and over.”
I ask if he can call the officers at the hospital to see whether the victim gave that identification. He pulls out his cell phone.
“He ID'd him,” Taylor says a moment later, snapping shut his phone. “The shooter was 24. The driver was 29.” I expect a look of happiness to cross his face, but it doesn't come. It seems the identification of the shooter might be a set-up for a more spectacular criminal justice failure.
“Okay, he ID'd them. But the next question is, will he show up in court? Will he go south on the stand?”
And there you have Philadelphia's homicide problem in a nutshell. A young black male shoots another young black male. The police beat the odds and nab the perpetrator on the night of the shooting, but their efforts may go to waste thanks to the fear or indifference of the victim. At no point has anything the police have done this night had any effect on whatever chain of events led to the shooting.
This may be what separates Philadelphia from cities where the homicide rate has fallen dramatically. New York and Los Angeles, for example, have removed portions of their police forces from 911 duty, largely in the service of achieving a single, critical objective: taking illegal guns from the street. Not by hoping they'll be returned through buy-back programs, not by holding anti-violence rallies and praying those guns won't be used, but by physically taking them from people who illegally have them in their waistbands, jackets and glove compartments. To understand the nuts and bolts of this, Philadelphia doesn't need to look to the great success of New York. It can turn west, to Kansas City.
IN THE LATE 1980s, criminologist Lawrence Sherman — then a professor at the University of Maryland, now the director of the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania — had a hunch. The basic facts of urban violence were not unlike what they are today. There were around 70 million handguns in circulation in the United States, many of them illegal and concentrated in the inner city. (Today, there are probably more than 100 million.) And the market for those guns was no less flexible than it is now: It seemed that no matter what efforts were made on the supply side — from permit denials to waiting periods to concealed-weapon bans — handguns, through theft or interstate straw purchase, found their way into the hands of criminals. Even if production was stopped dead, and not a single new handgun was ever manufactured or sold in a gun store again, there would be more than enough already on the streets to keep criminals well supplied for decades. But Sherman suspected that if the quantity of guns in circulation couldn't be changed, it was possible that gun carrying could. Under grants from the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the National Institute of Justice, he conducted an experiment in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1991. His hypothesis was that police officers, by aggressively enforcing laws against carrying concealed weapons at crime “hot spots” such as drug corners and nuisance bars, would discourage people from carrying guns, and that this decrease in gun-carrying would lead to fewer gun crimes. This was a great departure from the standard model of rapid response and random patrol.
Sherman's first step was to identify the “hot spots.” By itself, this verified an important prior finding: Just as there are repeat offenders who commit a disproportionate amount of violent crime, so there is a relatively small group of repeat locations in cities where there's a disproportionate amount of gun violence. During a previous study in Minneapolis, Sherman found that 420 of the city's street corners had 20-plus “hard crime” 911 calls each. Once he mapped those addresses using a computer program, Sherman could group them into just 110 clusters or “hot spots” for the entire city. The hot spots were usually around bars or stores open very late. The same went for Kansas City. There were two geographically distant but demographically similar neighborhoods — called Beat 144 and Beat 242 by the police department — that had the city's highest concentrations of gun crime. Sherman, with his team of researchers, identified the hot spots in the target area, Beat 144.
The second step of the experiment was to take four Beat 144 police officers and have them look for guns. These were uniformed officers, using two squad cars, working overtime between 7 p.m. and 1 a.m. seven days a week, paying particular attention to the hot spots Sherman had identified. The officers looked for behaviors that might indicate the presence of a gun — walking down the street on a summer day with a heavy coat on, for example — but also paid attention to minor offenses, such as running red lights or public drinking, that gave them a chance to see whether a person was behaving suspiciously enough to justify a frisk. Beat 242's patrolling remained unchanged.
Sherman's study describes how right away, the hot-spot officers of Beat 144 began to find guns. A man runs a stop sign, and the police pull him over. As the driver reaches for the glove compartment, an officer sees a hard bulge under his jacket. A frisk reveals a handgun. Another driver is stopped for speeding. The officer shines a flashlight onto the backseat, and sees a shotgun. Yet another driver runs a red light. A computer check shows the man is wanted on an assault charge. The driver is arrested, and a frisk uncovers a pistol. A man is urinating on the side of a car. Officers charge him with public urination, frisk him, and find a handgun.
At the end of the six-month experiment, gun seizures in Beat 144 had increased by 65 percent. More importantly, gun crime had decreased by 49 percent. There was only one murder by handgun in all of Beat 144. Gun crime in Beat 242 — the area in which policing was unchanged — was almost identical to what it was the year before the experiment. And by tracking gun crime incidents in the areas surrounding Beat 144, the researchers determined that crimes truly had been prevented in Beat 144, and not simply displaced to these other neighborhoods. The experiment was repeated in four more cities, with similar results: Gun violence plummeted in areas with gun patrols, and remained nearly the same in areas without it.
This story may sound familiar to any New Yorker who lived through the early years of the Giuliani administration. Quality-of-life crimes such as panhandling and turnstile-jumping were enforced; high-rate offenders were found and locked away in the process; guns were taken off the street; and crime rates fell. But the New York experience is problematic for criminologists because so many things were going on at once — _declining crack use, a flourishing economy, demographic shifts as immigrants and yuppies moved into once-_dangerous neighborhoods, and yes, the famous change to “broken windows”-style proactive policing — that it's been hard to say which had the most effect on declines in crime. That has been the significance of Sherman's work. He didn't say that the police can restore the nuclear family, eliminate poverty, bring back the industrial economy, or in any other way assuage the “root causes” many people think are behind urban violence. He made the narrow point that a police department can, by devoting some of its manpower to proactive, hot-spot gun patrols, have a demonstrable impact on the percentage of a city's murders that are committed with handguns.
The argument wasn't that so many thousands of guns are seized that criminals don't have access to them. It's that the probability of being arrested with a gun, or having a gun taken, will cause a young man not to carry it in the first place. And because so many shootings are spontaneous — a 19-year-old gets called a name in public and responds with his Bryco semi-automatic pistol — there is real prevention when a gun is left at home (or in a school locker, as is often the case). The key is to convince gun carriers that they will be stopped and their guns will be taken. That requires consistent, proactive patrolling and frisking for weapons where illegal gun-_carrying takes place, and that is why many cities that have seen dramatic crime drops have done exactly that. In a 2005 comprehensive review of the research on preventing gun violence, the National Academy of Sciences called Sherman's work “compelling” and “well-designed,” and said that gun patrols in hot spots have “substantial crime control effects.” The title of a study from a prominent Georgetown University researcher that supports Sherman's work puts it succinctly: “Better Gun Enforcement, Less Crime.”
Not long ago, I interviewed Sherman. We spoke in the Penn criminology department's library, which, until a recent move, was on the second floor of a brownstone on Walnut Street. “There was a shooting of a student at three o'clock in the morning right down there this February,” Sherman says, pointing out the window. “It was a stray bullet from some drug dealers shooting it out from the corner. So we live in our laboratory here.”
I ask about gun patrols.
“Looking for guns on the street is not a lock-'em-up strategy,” he says. “It's not a fill-the-prisons strategy. It's a specific and focused deterrent strategy that is trying to deter one thing — and that's people carrying guns around. Because if people don't carry their guns around, and somebody bumps into them and doesn't say 'Excuse me,' or somebody looks at them with a stare that they find offensive, then they may have to go home to get their gun to do something about it. But by the time they come back, the person may not be there, and the impulse may pass.”
That “stare that they find offensive” is the sort of thing over which young Philadelphians have so often been dying _lately — “Stupid arguments over stupid things,” as police commissioner Sylvester Johnson recently put it.
“Sometimes fights are followed several days later by an assassination, so there's no guarantee that people won't get shot when those disrespecting incidents occur,” Sherman says. “But what the evidence suggests is that it's going to happen at a lower rate if they don't have their guns in their pockets.”
And what about Philadelphia?
“The police in Philadelphia are not looking for guns in the street, and that has a context in this 40-year story that we have to understand,” Sherman says. “But we also have to understand that as far as the evidence is concerned, the National Academy of Sciences says it is the one thing we know works to reduce the homicide rate. And it's the one thing we're not doing in Philadelphia.”
IT'S HARD TO THINK of a time when the Philadelphia police department hasn't had an uneasy relationship with the city. During the Rizzo years, the police were famous for brutality and racism. Under Wilson Goode, they bombed and burned down a city block. Under Ed Rendell, there was the massive 39th District scandal in which officers stole cash from suspected drug dealers and manufactured evidence against defendants. A mayor and a police commissioner aware of that history no doubt have many priorities in managing the police force, but finding ways to make its officers more aggressive at crime hot spots probably isn't one of them.
In fact, if you wanted to play it as safe as possible, you'd model your police department on Philadelphia's. You'd keep officers in their cars. You'd control and monitor their movements by tying them to the _never-_ending queue of 911 calls. You'd initiate a program for which there is virtually no supporting evidence, like Operation Safe Streets, in which officers do little more than stand on corners. (From a recent study in the scholarly journal Justice Quarterly: “Operation Safe Streets failed to have a significant citywide impact on homicides, violent crime or drug crimes.”) You'd have COMPSTAT meetings, but you'd excise their most important element: accountability. In New York, COMPSTAT meetings are renowned for the rough give-and-take between the top brass and precinct commanders. The prospect of being dressed down in front of your peers was one of the ways former commissioner William Bratton ensured that local commanders would take ownership of their precincts' successes and failures. John Timoney brought COMPSTAT to Philadelphia, but officers tell me the current version is a far cry from New York's. “Here, we have COMPSTAT lite,” a former Philadelphia officer told me. “We just go through the motions.”
“Every police chief is just one headline away from losing his job,” Commissioner Johnson told this magazine in 2004. He's correct, but the history of big-city policing in America offers a caveat: A chief may lose his job if there's a corruption or brutality scandal, he may get fired if he commits a personal indiscretion, but if the homicide rate jumps up, he is actually pretty safe. The recent history of Philadelphia proves that.
Commissioner Johnson recently announced the formation of the 46-member (since raised to 56) Strategic Intervention Tactical Enforcement Unit to help hunt for guns, but a police official told me that these teams usually assist in handling the 911 backlog. They aren't hitting the streets with the focus of, say, New York's Street Crime or Special Narcotics and Guns units.
There's another element to this story. A big-city police department is to some extent an extension of the political philosophy of its citizens and its mayor. Giuliani was a law-and-order conservative, and in New York in the mid-1990s, that's exactly what that city's voters wanted. White liberals and African-Americans were never won over by the man or his ideas, but they were outnumbered by the vast, politically moderate middle class of Queens and Staten Island. Philadelphia is different. There's a moderate middle class in the region, but it's largely in the suburbs. The political base of the city itself is African-Americans, and given the history of police brutality here, it's difficult to imagine an idea that could inspire more suspicion than increased frisking in high-crime areas.
“Aggressive policing is a euphemism for brutality and the infringement of civil rights,” Jerry Mondesire, the president of the Philadelphia NAACP, said to me in a telephone interview. “If you want to fight crime, you need a better economic environment. There needs to be jobs and counseling.”
I brought up Sherman's studies, and the idea of deterring gun-carrying.
“It can't last,” Mondesire said. And then, possibly echoing the thought of every police commander in the city, “You're just going to get sued by the NAACP, the ACLU, and private citizens. In the long run, it's not going to solve it.”
AROUND 6 A.M. IN North Philadelphia, the sky becomes a dull gray, the streetlights flicker out, and it almost feels calm. But calm in this part of the city is usually an illusion.
“Burglary in progress, 29th and Dauphin,” the dispatcher says.
The address he gives is a store called One + One Bargains. It's on the same block as the Hollywood Chinese American Food Take Out and the storefront Fort Hill Fire Baptized Holiness Church of God of the Americas.
We can hear a burglar alarm, but it's muffled by the garage-door-style metal gate that's closed over the entrance. Stephens pulls the gate up to reveal broken glass. His gun comes out. More squad cars pull up. After a few minutes, the officers exit the store. The perpetrators are long gone.
“Cigarettes,” Stephens says. “They stole some cigarettes. Maybe they'll sell them, maybe they just wanted a smoke. They didn't even open the cash register.”
It's our last call of the night. Stephens remains at the store. I ride back to the station house with a Sergeant Ortiz. I will later learn three people were shot dead that night.
In his July 27th address, Mayor Street seemed strangely emotionless, except when he came to this passage: “Let me take a moment to personally appeal to our young people. Please take a deep breath before resorting to the use of guns to settle minor conflicts or perceived personal snubs which are inevitable. … There really are better ways to resolve these disputes. For starters, avoid at all cost the possession of a lethal weapon, the use of which will likely ruin your life. You are the future of this city. Lay your weapons down — now.”
As of the printing of this issue, we have more than 320 homicides for 2006, most of them concentrated in a handful of police districts. There may be, as Street said, better ways to solve disputes than with a gun. The question may be this: Without substantial, preventative intervention from the police — intervention that is based on the success and innovation of other urban police forces — how likely is it that the armed young men of Philadelphia will find them?
A Philadelphia native, Gregory Gilderman is a New York-based writer and documentary film producer. E-mail: email@example.com