Crime: “Not in My Town, Scumbag”

Upper Darby police chief Mike Chitwood was known as "Dirty Harry" in his 19 years as a cop in this city. Today, his tough talk is tempered with compassion. Could he be the solution to Philly's crime problem?

Chitwood backs up his proactive policies by spending more time on the street than behind his desk. Despite nearly pulling a Humpty Dumpty during a bike patrol after a hit-and-run driver sideswiped him, Chitwood still rides with his bike unit, and charges off with his narc team on everything from locking up dealers to storming dope houses stocked with automatic weapons and booby traps. “A chief in a department this large doesn’t routinely run out and handle calls,” says Lieutenant Madonna, an 11-year veteran. “He doesn’t have to go anywhere, but he’s a doer. You want to do with him. You get caught up in Mike Chitwood — his personality is contagious.”

Taking action — and letting everyone know about it, from cops to reporters to grandmothers — is the essence of Chitwood’s philosophy of policing, and it’s exactly what’s missing in Philadelphia, where the death toll and the failure to find a leadership pulse in the police department dominate all discussion. Sure, some of Chitwood’s cops roll their eyes when the chief rides along on a bust, but they also talk about how morale has improved since he arrived, how internal communication has never been better. There’s life in the force again. It’s the John Timoney model, leading by doing. Ask an old-timer about this generation of cops, and he’ll tell you the days of guys running through brick walls on command are over. Chitwood knows he has to show some of his cops why they should bother, and the best way to do that is to put his head down and run with them.

Chitwood fever peaked last fall, when a few officers suggested turning one of his mantras into a t-shirt: “Not in my town, scumbag!” Cries of insensitivity from urban activists Men United for a Better Philadelphia and anonymous letter-writers did little to curb sales, which benefit a slain cop’s memorial scholarship. It also brought Chitwood and Upper Darby some welcome national press. “I can’t think of one negative in the police department since Mike’s been here,” says Tom Micozzie, the town council’s pubic safety chairman.

Headlines have been part of Chitwood’s legacy since he earned his first commendation even before becoming a cop — in 1964, the kid from South Philly broke away from police academy training to collar a holdup suspect after a 15-block chase. His first day on the job, he’s running down three thieves. Most officers go their entire careers without so much as a mention in the papers; when Chitwood left the force in 1982, “Media Mike,” as he was later known, was a celebrity, a fact that is still resented by some of the rank and file in Philly.

But for all the flak Chitwood has taken for his media-friendly attitude, he’s careful to praise those below and above him. He doesn’t mention the time up by Temple University that he charged into a burning building and climbed out a window to save a mother and her baby. He’d rather talk about that raid when Captain Anthony “Chachi” Paparo’s SWAT team crept into a drug dealer’s home, ushered three kids out to safety, and surrounded him at gunpoint — all without rousing the creep from sleep.