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?

Menschy Mike, then? Now neighbors thank him from their doorsteps after drug-house shutdowns, and diner customers break into applause when he stops in for lunch. How did Chitwood become the cop who sees the bigger picture, who invites priests and parents to be his partners in crime-fighting, who shows everyone, from the monied streets of Drexel Hill to the drug-riddled alleys of Stonehurst, that he understands their fear?

HE CAN STILL see her in that Catholic school uniform. Some of the details are a little blurry after all these years, but the chief can’t forget little Nicky Caserta, lifeless in a Kensington basement, an extension cord wrapped around her neck and blood marking the spot where her 12-year-old heart once beat. Chitwood, the last witness in her killer’s trial, was for the D.A.’s office in 1983 what a lights-out relief pitcher is for a baseball team. It was almost art, the way he’d look at a jury, weaving the sordid details of the crimes he investigated until the jurors, too, wanted the scumbag on trial to pay. As he read from his own homicide report, he came to the part where Nicky pleaded to her murderer, “Please don’t hurt me.” She was the same age as Chitwood’s own daughter, Beth Anne. He could feel his eyes well up. It didn’t make sense, he thought: I’m Dirty Harry, man. This shit doesn’t happen! Chitwood pressed on until the words got stuck in his throat. Nicky’s mother and sister, shaken by his show of emotion, fled the courtroom in tears. Chitwood shoved the microphone away from his face, and the judge called for a recess.

“I realized that I was a human being,” Chitwood said recently, sitting in his unmarked car before storming into a pot dealer’s house in Drexel Hill. He eventually composed himself, and helped send Nicky’s killer to prison for life. “I always buried my feelings and emotions. That was the day I said, ‘Ya know what? I gotta do somethin’ else.’” Chitwood had built his career on cutting off his emotions, like turning off a spigot. He needed to figure out how to be a cop without shutting off the part of him that Nicky Caserta opened up.

Two years later, Chitwood left Philly and became the chief of Middletown Township. He moved on in 1988 to Portland, where his tough stance on guns, his outsider status, and his blunt talk rubbed some cops and citizens raw. Chitwood’s community-policing initiatives and a crackdown on panhandlers helped win over many critics, but by the end of his tenure there, the spectre of police brutality returned in the form of a series of lawsuits against a handful of his cops. Chitwood helped initiate a two-year U.S. Department of Justice investigation, which found no pattern of excessive force on his watch. By the time Chitwood left Portland, in 2005, he’d posted some impressive stats: Serious crime dropped 60 percent, and on average, if you read the papers in Portland, you’d see his name every other day. Not even his relocation to Upper Darby was enough to stop the GOP in Maine from pitching him on a governor’s run — a move he considered but, without a clear shot at winning, turned down.