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Smarter policing: Philly tries a three-pronged approach

A SMALL SMILE started to spread across Officer Javier Cortes' face as he squinted in the midday sun. He was standing the other day at Fairhill and York streets, next to a lot that he said he and his police partner had recently reclaimed.

Operation Pressure Point (here, officers of the 39th District) continues, but the new focus is on foot beats, problem-solving, and targeting known criminals. (Kriston J. Bethel/Staff)
Operation Pressure Point (here, officers of the 39th District) continues, but the new focus is on foot beats, problem-solving, and targeting known criminals. (Kriston J. Bethel/Staff)Read more

A SMALL SMILE started to spread across Officer Javier Cortes' face as he squinted in the midday sun.

He was standing the other day at Fairhill and York streets, next to a lot that he said he and his police partner had recently reclaimed.

Not from drug dealers, mind you, but from discarded trash and overgrown weeds that had strangled the sidewalk.

Cortes and Officer Ronald Fred have been doing this kind of work all summer along this edge of North Philadelphia in the 26th Police District - walking the streets, cleaning lots and playgrounds, building relationships with locals.

The two have been participating in the Smart Policing Initiative, a federally funded pilot program that is trying out what could be more-effective crime-fighting strategies in 60 locations across the city, police officials said.

The time appears to be right for some outside-the-box thinking: Murders and shootings are on the rise, and Operation Pressure Point, the lasso-all-the-bad-guys effort that put a big dent in weekend violence from spring to fall last year, is having mixed results this summer.

Cortes, who is among those doing community-focused foot patrols - one of the initiative's three focal points - gave the program a thumbs-up.

"I'll get a call on my cell phone [from residents] before something bad happens," he said.

"It's because we're out here all the time, and we're approachable."

And for a police department that's been hurting for good news lately, that's not bad.

Smarter policing

The seeds of the Smart Policing Initiative were planted last summer, when the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance announced that it would award 10 grants nationwide to study new public-safety strategies.

Nola Joyce, the Police Department's chief administrative officer, said she developed one of the winning proposals with Temple University criminologists Jerry Ratcliffe and Elizabeth Groff.

Their aim was simple. "With this dwindling resource that we have," Joyce said, referring to the department's manpower, "we want to know how we can best allocate our time and effort, and get the most for it."

Ratcliffe, who helped the department plot a different foot-patrol experiment last summer, emphasized the need for smarter policing that could sustain drops in crime over the long haul.

Too often, Ratcliffe said, police departments rely on swamping violent areas with scores of cops to solve their crime woes.

The problem with that approach? Criminals can easily adjust. "It's short-term. Everybody on the street knows it's short-term," he said. "It doesn't address the underlying problems."

So the department's brass decided to divide the Smart Policing Initiative effort among 20 foot beats, 20 problem-solving areas and 20 details that focus on known criminals in three- or four-block areas selected by Temple.

This fall, Ratcliffe and a team of grad students will analyze data to determine which approach had more success.

"We can use science to understand what works best and why," Ratcliffe said.

"Whatever happens with the results, we will learn about crime reduction and about making change in a large police organization."

'They seem to enjoy us'

The foot beats started in June.

Cortes and Fred were the only cops to volunteer for the job in the 26th District, said their boss, Capt. Michael Cram.

"If I had 20 cops like them," he added, "we wouldn't have any crime."

The duo set out to improve a stretch of the district from 3rd to 6th streets, between Dauphin and Cumberland. Cortes said they started by cleaning blighted lots that doubled as open-air drug markets.

They hung "No Littering" signs on light poles and developed a list of abandoned, crumbling properties in the neighborhood that needed a visit from a wrecking ball.

And then a funny thing happened: People started pitching in. Every Thursday and Friday, Cortes said, local residents tackle a neighborhood eyesore, usually alongside him and his partner.

"It looks 100 percent better around here," said longtime resident Sandra Williford from her stoop on York Street near 5th.

"We love having the officers out here with us. It makes everyone feel safer."

A similar vibe has developed in West Philadelphia's 19th District, where Officers Ian Nance and Darnell Jessie have walked a Smart Policing Initiative foot beat from 59th to 61st streets, between Market and Vine, for the last month and a half.

"The common [perception] is that most people don't like police officers," Nance said, "but the more intermingling we've done, the more they actually seem to enjoy us being here."

The up-close-and-personal approach has had a tactical benefit, too.

"We know everybody that's out here," Nance noted.

"We know everyone's criminal history. We know who's violent, who's carrying. So we have a different perspective now."

Best of all, Nance said, residents don't shy away from tipping the cops off about criminal activity. Chatting amiably with the officers has become second nature.

While the foot beats seem to be a hit, less is known about how the problem-oriented and offender-focus programs will fare; both are still taking shape.

The offender-focus effort will rely heavily on plainclothes cops doing surveillance work in known hot spots, Joyce said.

"We'll be looking at the people who commit crime in that area," she said. "It's about identifying who the high fliers are, and letting them know that we know."

The problem-oriented policing plan seems to hold the most promise. Joyce said the approach calls for cops to identify underlying neighborhood problems - from nuisance bars to drug houses to teens with nowhere safe to go - and work with other city agencies to find solutions.

In the 26th District, Capt. Cram has worked with John Farrell of the Managing Director's Office to bring needed change to neighborhoods plagued by crime, poverty and a feeling of hopelessness.

It's no small task, but they've had success, Cram said, simply by asking local residents what they need.

Based on their feedback, the Police Athletic League started offering after-school activities at Hartranft Elementary School, he said. A dormant pool was reopened at the neighboring Hartranft Community Center.

Fourteen dangerous buildings have been knocked down and 10 vacant properties have been sealed, he added. Health, education and job fairs could be next.

"There's nothing more rewarding than seeing police officers . . . helping to fix problems," Ratcliffe mused. "It can be hugely rewarding."

Although the short-term benefits of the Smart Policing Initiative - improvements to the community, better relationships between cops and residents - are undoubtedly good for the city, the true worth of the program might be determined by what happens over the long haul.

After Ratcliffe and his researchers determine which approach had the most impact on violent crime, the department will seek to implement that strategy on a larger scale, Joyce said.

The biggest goal

Lost in all of the talk about the pilot programs is a crime-fighting strategy that worked wonders for the Police Department last year: Operation Pressure Point.

Cops and members of 16 other law-enforcement agencies flooded the city's 12 most violent districts from Friday night to Sunday morning for seven months, including the notoriously violent summer period.

The effort led to 1,775 arrests and the seizure of $4.9 million worth of drugs and 247 firearms, police said.

Most importantly, Pressure Point led to a 51 percent drop in weekend murders from April to November in those districts, from 47 homicides to 23.

Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel, who oversees Pressure Point, said the operation was rolling along this year, although the results thus far are mixed.

As of Aug. 15, homicides in the targeted districts are up 33 percent, from 21 to 28, compared to this point last year, and the number of shooting victims in those districts has risen 21 percent, from 142 to 172, he said.

Those numbers are in line with the higher rates that have dogged the city for much of this year.

The murder count stood at 202 as of Saturday, a 3 percent increase from the same point last year.

Shootings are up about 16 percent during the same period.

Part of it is the normal, maddening ebb and flow of crime. Districts that were once quiet are suddenly experiencing trouble; last year's shooting victim is this year's murder victim because the bullet hit an organ this time.

"Is it working?" Bethel asked rhetorically of Pressure Point.

"You have to believe that what you're doing is having an effect. If you don't believe in it, nobody will."

The biggest goal, he added, is to prevent the level of violent crime from sliding back to where it was in 2007, when the city often was compared unfavorably to war zones in Iraq.

To keep criminals off-balance, Bethel said, the department's brass has tried to be more creative. Rather than flooding one or two problem districts each weekend with all of the authorities involved in Pressure Point - as was often the case last year - the forces are being spread out among the targeted districts.

And some pieces of the attack plan, like serving fugitive warrants, are being implemented on Thursdays.

Bethel said the department is using the same number of cops to drive Pressure Point as it used last year, even though the overtime budget that pays for the effort has been slashed.

Some other law-enforcement agencies have curtailed their involvement, he said, because of their own budget woes.

"We understand budget cuts are part of the process," he added, "but at the end of the day, we still have to get it done."

On a pleasant Friday evening earlier this month, Sgt. Larry Smart was working the Pressure Point detail in the 19th District.

While riding around the target area - 52nd to 61st street, between Lancaster Avenue and Master Street - Smart recalled the impact the program had last year.

"You saw the rehabilitation of entire areas, just like that," he said.

Making those positive changes stick proved to be the larger challenge. Smart said he encouraged his officers to become more proactive, attend community meetings and pay attention to quality-of-life issues.

"I tell them all the time: 'Treat it as if it's your parents' block,' " Smart said. "Respond to issues not because you have to, but because you care."

The Police Department will keep at it, then, mixing and matching personnel and plans, chasing that elusive prize: the crime rate that gets low and stays low.

Ratcliffe, the criminologist, summed it up best: "There are no easy ways to reduce violent crime anymore."