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Undercover cop fights Philly's illegal dumping epidemic

Officer McKoy has been trying for years to cure the city's sickest streets.

Philadelphia Police officers Robert McCoy and Danny Percell with the Police Neighborhood Services Unit work undercover to catch illegal dumping. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )
Philadelphia Police officers Robert McCoy and Danny Percell with the Police Neighborhood Services Unit work undercover to catch illegal dumping. ( ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )Read more

POLICE OFFICER Robert McKoy steered his unmarked patrol car down Clearfield Street near 20th in North Philadelphia and spotted the guy he'd arrested recently for illegally dumping hundreds of tires and tons of broken concrete on the block.

The guy, who is awaiting his court date, was sitting in a blue pickup truck at the scene of the crime, staring out the windshield at his former dumping ground.

"A big, red truck was his workhorse," McKoy said. "We took his work horse and his front-end loader, too. We put this guy out of business. So I don't know why he's sitting there."

McKoy's partner, Officer Danny Percell, said, "He's reminiscing."

They savor their temporary victory in a war they cannot hope to win, yet McKoy and Percell soldier on. Illegal dumping is a citywide plague, turning dozens of streets, many of them residential, into wastelands of tires and trash that are one arsonist away from becoming tragedies.

In fiscal year 2013, the Streets Department spent $1.4 million cleaning up and hauling away 14,000 tons of illegally dumped trash and tires. In the prior two years, it spent $3.2 million disposing of 33,000 tons.

"It's an epidemic," said McKoy, who hunts illegal dumpers all over the city and seems to have a GPS in his head that leads him to every violated street.

"Illegal dumping is my albatross," said Deputy Streets Commissioner Donald Carlton. "I've been here 22 years. The tires problem has gotten worse. We just removed 10 tons of tires from a lot at C and Westmoreland."

But when McKoy and Percell checked the lot a few days ago, they saw fresh piles of tires, hidden from the street by weed trees growing on a huge mound of dirt that was illegally dumped there years ago. The perpetual cycle of blight had begun again.

"We have nine people cleaning up 14,000 to 17,000 tons of illegally dumped trash a year throughout the city," Carlton said. "These guys are my A-team."

McKoy and Percell, the heart and soul of the Police Department's blight-fighting Neighborhood Services Unit, are up against a relentless army of illegal dumpers that trash city streets every day, every night.

They drove through Kensington, where Silver Street between Coral and Amber was lined with so many dumped sofas, resting on ground carpeted with construction debris, that the block looked like hell's family room.

McKoy pointed out three surveillance cameras on high poles.

The illegal dumpers were too dumb to notice them or too slick to care, McKoy said. Career dumpers have a spotter in a car to make sure undercover cops aren't around. Even some small-timers know enough to tape over their license plates.

But the cameras catch hundreds of illegal dumpers, said Thomas Conway, a deputy managing director who supervises the city's Community Life Improvement Program.

"We have solar, wireless, mobile cameras in the illegal-dumping hot spots that provide pictures to the police, who then run the license plates and issue $300 tickets," Conway said.

Photographs, McKoy said, are enough to write tickets, but won't get criminal convictions in court.

The most valuable weapons McKoy has to fight illegal dumping are his eyes.

"Judges today don't want you to come to court half-stepping," McKoy said. "They want to know that you've seen the illegal dumping with your own eyes. You pulled them out of the car. You've got to catch them in the act."

Often, McKoy said, dumpers play innocent.

"When you catch them throwing tires out of their truck, they beg you for a second chance," he said. "They tell you, 'I didn't know.'

"We rode right up on a guy dumping broken concrete and unclean dirt near the skate park under I-95. He said somebody told him it was OK to dump stuff in FDR Park. Then, he said he used to be in the mob. Then he said he was on parole."

McKoy just shook his head.

A guy caught dumping 6-foot-high piles of tires all over three vacant lots on a residential block of Lehigh Avenue near 27th Street "told us he just got out of the federal pen and was trying to make a living," McKoy said. "He claimed the property was his. But we'd checked. It wasn't."

The court ordered the defendant to pay $4,000 restitution. "If we catch him again," McKoy said, "it's a first-degree misdemeanor and he's going to do some jail time."

McKoy, who has been a police officer for nearly 25 years, said it bothers him "when you have somewhere legal you can go but people refuse to [use] it" - such as the city's Recycling Drop-Off Center on 63rd Street near Eastwick Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia.

"It's open Saturdays but closed Sundays," McKoy said, "so on Saturday nights and all day Sundays, people tearing houses down and cleaning up construction sites come from Jersey, Delaware, all over, and dump trash outside the facility in front of the gate.

"There was so much trash out there, they couldn't open the gate on Mondays. They had to use a front-end loader to clear the trash out first."

Then McKoy started his stakeouts. "We made a lot of arrests out there," he said, "so that's kind of curbed the illegal dumping. When you arrest them, first thing they tell you is, 'I didn't know you couldn't put trash here.' But there are signs that say, 'No Illegal Dumping.' So, they knew."

McKoy's partners over the past decade have moved on to other police work. But McKoy continues to hunt down illegal dumpers - a man on a mission.

"You try to think like they think, keep going back to the areas they frequent, try to figure out their next move," he said. "You follow your hunches. It's like cat and mouse. It's like playing chess."

It's like being Sherlock Holmes in an unmarked Crown Victoria.

"When I ride right up on someone and catch them in the act, I get the satisfaction of locking them up," McKoy said.

"You never have enough hours in a day to get this completed," he said. "I throw my all into it. If I had 20 more of me, I could clean up the city of Philadelphia."