Pulse: Rebuttal: The Commissioner Speaks

By Sylvester Johnson, Police Commissioner, City of Philadelphia

Your November 2006 cover story is full of erroneous statements, and your inflammatory cover sends the wrong message about the public safety of our city. Philadelphia is a safer city than it was six years ago.

Philadelphia is experiencing both a decrease in overall crime and an admittedly disturbing increase in gun crime. However, our gun crime increase is not unique. American cities and towns of all sizes are experiencing similar problems. Baltimore, Birmingham, Detroit, Kansas City, Richmond, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., each had higher homicide rates than Philadelphia in 2005. Last year, New York City, Miami and Orlando all experienced increases in gun violence. Studies have shown this is because of federal disinvestments in local public safety efforts and social service programs and because of lax gun laws at the local, state and federal levels.

As part of our Operation Safer Streets, the PPD identified “hot spots” and deployed forces to these “hot spots” throughout the city to aggressively crack down on quality-of-life offenses and remove illegal guns from our streets. We are hiring more cops, and we have changed work schedules to move our forces to the areas where we need them at the times when crime is more likely to occur.

As a result of our aggressive policing and intelligence sharing, we took more guns off the streets last year than we did in 2005 and 2004. We have confiscated more drugs. Our arrests have increased by over six percent. Our police are actively and aggressively patrolling our streets.

The article incorrectly implies that the city is not enforcing curfew. In fact, we issued more curfew violations last year than in previous years. Last summer we opened a curfew center in South Philadelphia that brings minors to a centralized location to be screened for social services and [allows us to] hold parents accountable. Youth violence dramatically decreased in that pilot area, and we are expanding this successful program.

I invite your reporter and “expert” Professor Sherman to get the facts directly from the police department. Had they checked with me or with any member of the police command structure, they would have gotten the truth. But you don’t have to just take our word for it. Check with the major city chiefs. Speak with members of town watch groups. Call other police departments, and you will learn what the citizens of our city already know: that the Philadelphia police department is among the finest in the country, that we incorporate proven policing strategies, and that we are a model to other law enforcement agencies.

THE EDITOR RESPONDS As the commissioner knows, our writer, Greg Gilderman, twice requested interview time with him, to no avail. The citing of conveniently selective statistics — as opposed to looking at how cities most akin to us, like New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Chicago, reduced their murder rates to historic lows from 2001 through 2005 — only underscores Commissioner Johnson’s defensiveness. So do assertions like “We are hiring more cops” with no acknowledgement that under Johnson, nearly 600 cops have been cut from the force. We respect Commissioner Johnson’s years of public service, but we agree with the Fraternal Order of Police: He simply has not been a leader on this issue. Instead, he has said, “Law enforcement is not going to change anything,” and he has attacked the media for challenging such a defeatist attitude. But don’t take our doubts about Johnson’s leadership as gospel; go to our website, phillymag.com, and listen to a podcast of the discussion we hosted at the National Constitution Center in December. Panelists included Johnson, Gilderman, Penn’s Larry Sherman (a nationally recognized authority who doesn’t deserve Johnson’s snide quotation marks), and District Attorney Lynne Abraham. Listen and decide for yourself if Johnson’s comments give you confidence that — as Abraham advocated in the forum, when she said she’s “willing to try anything” — Commissioner Johnson has the urgency and strength of conviction to stem our murderous tide.