IN AN UNEASY silence, about 35 parents and teens sat on rusty metal chairs in the 12th District's dingy, humid roll-call room.

Then, the terse words of Common Pleas Judge Kevin Dougherty cut through the air: "Welcome to my world," he said. "I don't play."

It was about 7 on a Friday night when Dougherty and Capt. Daniel MacDonald transformed the roll-call room into a makeshift courtroom for the district's first juvenile-nuisance night-court session. The goal of the monthly program - MacDonald's brainchild - is to convince young, first-time offenders to straighten out their lives now, instead of getting swallowed up in a cycle of violence and crime.

The judge paired many teens that night in late April with community groups and ordered them to clean the streets and parks of Southwest Philadelphia. "These kids are capable of being rehabilitated," Dougherty said.

Cops and longtime community activists say that sort of outside-the-box thinking, along with putting more cops on the street, are early hallmarks of Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey's administration, which has seen a pronounced drop in crime numbers across the city. 

The decrease in violent crime numbers is probably most noticeable in Southwest Philadelphia's 12th District, which Ramsey identified four months ago as one of the city's nine worst. Residents see more cops on the street, fewer drug dealers on the corners. Some feel safer, but others remain skeptical that the crime drop will last.

As of May 18, there have been seven killings in the 12th District, compared with 15 at that same point a year ago, according to police statistics. The number of shooting victims there is also down, from 59 a year ago to 43.

Similar trends are playing out across the city. As of last Tuesday, police officials said that the number of homicides stood at 117, compared with 158 at this point last year - a 25 percent decrease.

The overall number of citywide shooting victims is down 23 percent, from 660 to 506, officials said.

The decreases are in line with the goals listed in the crime plan Ramsey presented to Mayor Nutter at the end of January.

But Ramsey freely admits that the numbers only tell part of the story and need to be put in perspective, especially in light of the May 3 murder of Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski.

"I'm pleased that the numbers are where they are, but . . . we've got a long way to go," Ramsey said during a recent interview.

"It's still early, and we have the entire summer to get through. I'm optimistic, but I'm not overly optimistic."

No 'drug boys'

Lounging on the front steps outside his home at 65th Street and Kingsessing Avenue a few weeks ago, Henry Williams spoke of the progress his neighborhood has made in recent months.

Lounging on the front steps outside his home at 65th Street and Kingsessing Avenue a few weeks ago, Henry Williams spoke of the progress his neighborhood has made in recent months.

For one thing, his rest hasn't been disturbed lately by nightly bursts of gunfire.

"I don't see the drug boys like I used to," said Williams, 52.

On the surface, things have started to look a little different in Southwest Philly, a once-thriving section of the city that gave way to urban decay, high crime and suburban flight over the past decade.

The area is home to more than 80,000 residents with a significant number of West African and Vietnamese immigrants. It includes the neighborhoods of Bartram, Eastwick, Elmwood Park, Hedgerow, Kingsessing, Penrose Park and Schuylkill.

Longtime residents agree that police have been more visibly present since Ramsey took over the department.

But many said that they still felt unsafe, despite the encouraging crime statistics.

"It's still the same," declared Daniel Mitchell, 31, as he strolled down Woodland Avenue, the neighborhood retail strip that's lined with West African food and clothing shops, mom-and-pop stores and decrepit rowhouse shells.

"I don't blame [Ramsey] for it. All commissioners do their job in good faith. It's up to the people to want better, safer communities."

Xzayvion Jenkins, 17, reflected on the increased police presence - as well as his own run-ins with cops - while he waited for his girlfriend near 65th Street and Grays Avenue in Elmwood and looked across the street at girls who jumped rope as boys played tag football.

Jenkins said that he was arrested last summer for drugs. Then, last fall, he was arrested the second day of school for assaulting a police officer who attempted to break up a fight between him and another schoolmate. He was expelled.

"The cops stay on my case," he said in a quiet, thoughtful voice. "They bother people a lot more. So I stay out of trouble."

A few blocks away, Karl Kelly grunted as he dragged a large trash bin onto the sidewalk in front of his home. Straightening himself, he wiped beads of sweat off his brow and glimpsed up and down the block.

He, too, noticed more police cruisers, he said. But he's unimpressed with the heightened police presence, he said. It would help the community more, he said, if cops were visible - outside their police cruisers.

"Everybody got back in their cars," he said, referring to 12th District police officers, who he said used to patrol his neighborhood on foot.

Little has changed, he said, since Mayor John Street ran through several incarnations of Operation Safe Streets during his administration.

"If [police officers] parked their cars and actually walked around you wouldn't have anyone standing on the corner," he said as he ambled back into his rowhouse.

Getting more cops out of their cars and offices and back on the street remains Ramsey's basic blueprint.

Early on, he disbanded the Strategic Intervention Tactical Enforcement team and put its 45 members back into regular districts.

A month ago, he announced that 135 Narcotics Strike Force Unit officers were being moved to patrol as well - a move that rankled many police-department veterans.

Ramsey said that he's still reviewing many of the department's specialized units, and acknowledged that more units might be disbanded to boost patrol numbers.

"I don't need a lot of specialists - I need generalists," he said. "The bottom line is, patrol division is the core. That's where everything is at. Everybody exists to support patrol, period."

The extra manpower has been a welcome addition to creative commanders like Capt. MacDonald, who's seen about a dozen extra cops added to his district since Ramsey took over the department.

"We need them," MacDonald said. "Now, we've got a lot of guys on bikes who do nothing but stay out in the neighborhoods and get to know people beyond just responding to 9-1-1 calls."

But it's clear that any long-term drops in violent crime and increases in the perceived quality of life will take more than just police efforts.

"Crime be crime," sighed William Brown, a 49-year-old carpenter, as he rode his bike down a quiet stretch of Woodland Avenue.

"What they need to do is open up jobs for people. If everyone's working, it'll be safer out here."

All together now

Nuisance night court is an effort to get teens to make better choices.

Nuisance night court is an effort to get teens to make better choices.

The first hour, many youngsters fiddled and shifted in chairs as they studied the roll-call room with faded green wall tiles and sputtering ceiling fans.

A group of 12th District cops, fresh off bike patrols, stood quietly in the back of the room with their arms folded as Judge Dougherty spelled out the seriousness of the proceedings to his young audience.

Screw up now, he explained to the teens, and next time, you'll be in Family Court. Before you know it, he warned, you'll be carrying around a prior-record score that will hurt your chances of getting a job or a home.

"I'm not playin'," Dougherty intoned repeatedly. Eventually, his audience caught on.

The night court was partially borne of Capt. MacDonald's own desire to draw a distinction between the number of decent people who live in Southwest Philly and the long-standing perception that a large number of criminals live in the area.

He thought about the teens that he met at local schools, regular kids who got locked up for fighting or drinking in the park and then convinced themselves that they were hardened criminals.

MacDonald believed that the juvenile-nuisance night court would get those bordlerine kids back on the right path.

"We have to change the mindset and the dynamic out here," MacDonald said. "There are only a few bad guys out here, so we can define who we are ourselves."

Dougherty, an administrative judge in Family Court, leapt at the chance to be a part of the program.

And about a dozen community activists - including town-watch members and curfew-center volunteers - also chipped in, pledging to work with teens sent to the nuisance night court on community-service projects and counseling.

"It all falls in line with Commissioner Ramsey's strategic plan," Dougherty said. "A lot of these are quality-of-life offenses. You can make the community safer and rehabilitate some of these kids by dealing with them now."

Another nuisance night-court session will be held next month. The first session was a success - all of the teens followed through and completed the community work they were sentenced to, Dougherty said last week.

The program will continue without MacDonald, who is about to begin a 10- to 12-month deployment with the Army in Iraq, where he previously served in 2004 and 2005. "He's a huge loss for us during this year," Ramsey said. "There are few others that I think are in the same league as him."

MacDonald praised his own cops and community volunteers, like Southwest Philly town-watch member Sam Ricks, who works with little recognition to make a difference.

"Everybody needs to buy into it," MacDonald noted.

Ricks said that the members of his town-watch group, Parkwatch, started walking patrols of Southwest neighborhoods with 12th District cops last month. Having a working relationship with the police department has obvious benefits, Ricks said. Community members are able to give cops a heads-up on neighborhood tensions, drug dealers and nuisance properties that officers don't even know about.

"They're more aggressive at responding to community complaints and issues," Ricks said.

"If we're active and have good imput, you're going to get faster police response and a higher number of offenders getting stopped.

"It all goes hand-in-hand." *