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?

MIKE CHITWOOD HIMSELF points out that he wasn’t always a media darling. (In Chitwoodese, “I’ve had my balls kicked in.”) In the ’70s, he sported a curly shock of brown hair, an all-business cop mustache that framed his angular cheekbones, and that “Dirty Harry” handle he earned for his willingness to run headlong into danger and his reputation as a no-nonsense interrogator. Back then, that sometimes meant getting physical. An Inquirer series on police brutality in 1977 focused largely on Chitwood, accusing him of beating a handcuffed suspect so badly that his blackjack broke in half.

“We did what we had to do,” says Chitwood of those days. “If we wanted to talk to somebody, they’d come with us. If they didn’t want to, we might … coerce them. But we didn’t beat anyone all the way down to the Roundhouse. They reported some things that just weren’t true.” In the story’s aftermath, a number of attorneys, including one with the police brutality unit, spoke out in Chitwood’s defense, and he was never charged. In a 1981 interview with Philadelphia, he discussed the fallout: “The worst thing about that whole time was the way some people, who knew better, treated me. … The media can destroy you. I found that out.”

Three years after the Inquirer series, the press did just the opposite in covering Chitwood, who was then a department hostage negotiator. On a Thursday afternoon in October, he was called to a house in Southwest Philadelphia where Edward McNeill held the .303-caliber rifle he had just used to shoot a cop in the face. Unarmed and unprotected, Chitwood hopped the fence into McNeill’s backyard.

“Eddie, throw out your gun,” he said calmly, arms outstretched.

“I got you in my sight,” the cop killer told him. “I’ll blow you away.”

After an hour’s worth of talking, McNeill laid down his weapon. The Inquirer, in what seemed like a media mea culpa, said this: “Detective Michael Chitwood … symbolized … the heroism of thousands in the Philadelphia Police Department … who face danger and possible death as a part of their daily routine.”

That hints at why he’s still out chasing criminals instead of reading about it the next day in a report: Heroism, arrests by the fistful — he’s always had those in spades. Today, though, he’s made believers of old enemies like attorney Dennis Cogan, who once sued Chitwood for suppressing evidence that could have kept a client out of jail. (The case was settled out of court by the city.) “As a lot of homicide cops did back then, he cut corners, and that led him to lock horns with people like myself,” Cogan says. “[But] he went to Middletown Township and got rave reviews. He went to Maine and became a beloved leader. He really turned out to be something special. He became a mensch.”