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In North Philly, community policing is at heart of crime reduction

39th Police District officers are making neighborhood connections as a way to fight crime.

Officer Michael Levin keeps an eye out during a car stop as he writes a ticket for a man who made a brazen illegal U-turn on Wissahickon Avenue Tuesday night. (Morgan Zalot / Daily News Staff)
Officer Michael Levin keeps an eye out during a car stop as he writes a ticket for a man who made a brazen illegal U-turn on Wissahickon Avenue Tuesday night. (Morgan Zalot / Daily News Staff)Read more

IT WAS ABOUT 8 o'clock Tuesday night, and the chilly, rain-soaked streets of North Philadelphia's 39th Police District were nearly empty as Officer Michael Levin's Crown Vic crept across the blacktop.

But Levin, who usually works in bicycle patrol when weather and circumstances permit, was on the street anyway, keeping a watchful eye on the swaths of North Philadelphia, Nicetown, Germantown and East Falls that make up the district headquartered at 22nd Street and Hunting Park Avenue.

On this night, Levin, 28, a seven-year veteran who's spent all those years in the 39th, reflected on community policing - a strategy favored by Capt. Michael Craighead, who took command of the district about a year ago.

"Bike patrol is really good for community relations. People come up and thank you. It's a real good deterrent presence," Levin said. "The community needs us and we need them."

Police statistics show that shootings in the 39th District have dropped about 40 percent over last year. The district has had 63 shootings, compared with 106 in the same period last year.

Levin busied himself during the first leg of his tour with checking corners plagued with drug sales and, as often come with them, shootings. At one of the district's hot corners, Hansberry and Knox streets in Germantown, Levin pointed out a corner store with a shattered glass door.

"Hansberry and Knox is busy for us," he said. "It's one of our violent corners."

Even on the quiet, rainy nights, Levin said, police presence on the streets and interacting with people in the neighborhoods - he stopped at one point on Germantown Avenue to momentarily block traffic for men pushing a woman's car to the curb after it ran out of gas - builds rapport and helps police prevent and solve crime.

"That's the hard part, trying to get people to talk [about crimes]. Community policing 100 percent helps. People know we care," Levin said. "Treat people with respect. That's the most important thing."

That motto held true even in tough circumstances later that night, when Levin and fellow officers came face-to-face with a raging senior citizen who threatened, "I'll shoot a cop. I'll kill all these motherf-----s," numerous times as the officers tried to calm him.

They were called to the man's apartment on 15th Street - one of the bigger jobs of the otherwise quiet shift - after the man's neighbors called 9-1-1 and reported that he was drunk and threatening to stab them.

Levin and two other officers spent 10 minutes talking to the man to calm him down. The cops, despite the man's threats, kept their cool and eventually convinced him to go back inside his apartment. For them, the job isn't just about throwing people in jail; it's about working with the community.

"Even talking to people you're arresting" is an important part, Levin had explained earlier. "I'll say, 'You're 19, you've got your whole life ahead of you. You're not gonna make it on these streets.' "

Levin and commanding officers in the 39th agree that the emphasis on community policing has helped to reduce crime around the district and gain the trust of people in violent neighborhoods where a "no-snitch" culture had prevailed in the past.

"The community itself is our eyes and ears. Nobody knows more information as to who the players are, what they're doing, where they're doing it, where they're hiding drugs and weapons than people who live there," said Lt. Vincent Testa, who's worked in the district for about three years. " 'Don't snitch?' Community policing is the antithesis of that."

For Levin, helping people is the rewarding part of the job.

"There are a lot of good people down here who need help," he said during his tour Tuesday night.

"That's what I signed up for."