December 8-14, 2005
: Michael T. Regan
Will the Point Breeze police crackdown make a difference?
It looks crazy down here in Point Breeze. Police cars crisscross the grid of rundown streets like hyperactive rooks on a chessboard, making it impossible to go a block without seeing blue and white. There's a lot of red and yellow, too, from the flashing lights of people being pulled over. And everywhere you go, pedestrians have stopped to watch the police in action. The whole neighborhood feels like the stage of some big show.
The Police Department wasn't kidding last week when it said it was going to flood South Philly's 17th District, where violent crime is up 30 percent this year. Technically, cops aren't flooding the whole districtwhich stretches from Lombard to Moore, and Broad to the Schuylkill River/Tasker Homesjust the Point Breeze section of it. But with its abandoned houses and empty lots, this is where the worst of the crime wave has occurred, and, at least for the first few days after the police announced their 30-day sweep, it felt like occupied territory.
The philosophy behind this brand of policing is called "broken windows," a theory holding that the best way to stop serious criminal behavior is to crack down on minor infractions that create an atmosphere of chaos. (If a window is broken, vandals will assume no one cares about that building, and break another one. When no one fixes that, they'll go inside and steal something.) The Safe Streets program followed this thinking, and now police say they hope to take back the streets of the 17thand make neighbors comfortable enough to offer information about the recent murder of 16-year-old Daniel Starlingby instituting a "zero-tolerance" policy.
"I would advise you not to jaywalk," Capt. Jerrold Bates was quoted as saying in the Inquirer. This may have been a bit hyperbolic: Beyond the heavy car patrols, the police effort appears to include frequent traffic stops that often lead to searches. Any other operation that may be occurring is not visible to the untrained eye, though word around town is, if the cable guy needs to be on 19th Street this much, there might be a problem with the wiring.
Police did not respond to a request for arrest numbers, but residents offered a wide array of feedback. Outside of a laundromat at 18th and Moore, a man loading clothing into his car says that the neighborhood needs more police so that the kids can feel safe outdoors; inside, a man folding socks bemoans the old folks locked in their homes. A man walking his dog in an abandoned lot says that the police are welcome, but wonders where they have been in the past. He says he went to them when someone's pit bull attacked his Vizsla and was referred to a detective who just filled out some paperwork. "It was nothing like TV," he says dryly.
After the cops pull over a young black man in a RAV4, search him and his vehicle, and ultimately rip into him for an expired registration sticker (it expired Nov. 5, the date is Dec. 1), he stands on the street, reciting the story to neighbors: "They said, "You're shivering, you look nervous.' I said, "It's cold outside!'"
His grandmother leans out her door wearing only a light floral print housedress. She's the block captain on this strip of Fernon Street, a space that consists mostly of abandoned houses, and believes she speaks for the neighborhood. "They gone too far," she says, "these Rizzo boys." These cops, people around here say, are "boot cops," like former Mayor Frank Rizzo's tough guys who wore big bootsthe better to kick asses with.
After nightfall, as the temperature drops and the streets empty, one man and one woman stand in front of a church, shivering their way through a conversation. The man, who gives the name James, is ambivalent about the police presence. "I'm a black man, and I don't like the police," he says. He claims his son was prosecuted and jailed for a robbery he didn't commit. Asked whether he will concede that on this, the second night of the police operation, there don't appear to be many groups of young men on corners, he agrees but argues, "That's just because it's cold. Black people don't like the cold."
Most of these comments are unsurprising, even boilerplate. In fact, it feels like everyone is just reciting a familiar script. There was a shooting here? What a tragedy. The police are going to step it up? It's about time. They hassled a young black man and searched him without cause? How dare they. Everyone knows his part. We'll do this for 30 days, and then we'll take it from the top.