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A midnight shooting. A paralyzed victim. Philly cops go to work

The Inquirer and Daily News shadowed investigators from crime scenes to hospital rooms and the intelligence bureau, getting a rare first-hand glimpse at the Police Department's strategies for combating gun violence in West Philadelphia.

Lt. John Walker, left, checks his phone at the scene of a shooting on 54th Street and Warrington Avenue on Sept. 28, 2017.
Lt. John Walker, left, checks his phone at the scene of a shooting on 54th Street and Warrington Avenue on Sept. 28, 2017.Read moreChris Palmer

He made it a few steps before the bullet hit his spine.

The 30-year-old had been running from would-be robbers in Kingsessing, young men who initially demanded money but settled for target practice as he bolted in fear. He lost feeling in his legs the instant he was shot, at 54th Street and Warrington Avenue. The attackers scattered without even taking his wallet.

It was just after midnight on a Thursday last month. Lt. John Walker arrived at the crime scene, ducking under yellow tape and walking toward the bloodied pavement.

In a city with more than 1,000 shootings a year, this had long been the typical start to an investigation. But things are changing. Before Walker even stepped out of his car, a team of officers in a room five miles away already was working the case — remotely scanning for surveillance cameras in the neighborhood and diving into databases to find potential leads about the victim and who might have had reason to target him.

In minutes, that intelligence bureau's handiwork — an email report — landed in Walker's inbox, easily accessible from his phone. It's all part of a new effort that the department says reflects its continued attempt to drill down on blocks plagued by gun violence.

Across the city, shootings are down about 6 percent compared with last year's pace, and overall violent crime continues to decrease. But in some neighborhoods, like Kingsessing, it seems the gun violence never ends.

Since the beginning of 2015, according to police statistics, 86 people have been shot within a half-mile radius of the intersection at 54th and Warrington. That's five times as many as in all of neighboring University City.

Shootings around 54th and Warrington since Jan. 1, 2015

Staff Graphic

In recent weeks, the Inquirer and Daily News shadowed investigators in Southwest Philadelphia from crime scenes to hospital rooms and to the intelligence bureau. Along with interviews of beat cops, district commanders, and police brass, the experience offers a look at the department’s strategies for combating gun violence — and the challenges that remain in one of the nation’s most violent cities.

“We are not declaring success here,” said one deputy commissioner, Joseph Sullivan. “We just feel we’re moving in the right direction.”

A hospital confrontation

Shortly after the shooting that September night, officers patrolling about a mile away passed two men on the 2100 block of South Simpson Street.

As their police car passed, the men ran into a house.

They matched a vague description of the shooting suspects, so the officers stopped, approached the house, questioned the men, then hauled them off to Penn Presbyterian Medical Center.

There, the shooting victim was in surgery. But police had another potential witness at the hospital — a man who had been pistol-whipped and robbed minutes before the shooting, seemingly by the same people.

Walker then faced one of the most confounding challenges for police: getting victims to identify their attackers, in this case in a face-to-face confrontation.

An officer led the first suspect — a thin man in a white T-shirt — into the emergency room, where Walker was waiting.

“Close your eyes,” he ordered the young man. Walker then guided him into a room where the pistol-whip victim was in a bed.

The victim took a quick look, then shook his head no. Officers repeated the drill with the second suspect, with the same result. Both were driven back to South Simpson Street and released.

Detectives arrived around 2 a.m. They would take the case from here, under Walker’s supervision, and at this point, it wasn’t much — only a vague description of three suspects, two carrying guns.

There’s a morbid secret among cops: Sometimes, it’s easier to solve a shooting if the victim dies. The stakes can feel higher for potential witnesses, who might be targeted for “snitching” to police. Even people who survive being shot often decline to speak up; some are afraid that doing so will invite retaliation.

For Southwest Detectives, this year, the clearance rate for shootings — that is, the percentage of cases closed by arrest or other means — is just 19 percent. None of the city’s six detective bureaus has a rate higher than 29 percent.

The homicide clearance rate, by comparison, is about 42 percent. If that rate holds, it would be the lowest year-end figure in more than 15 years.

Police commanders hope the nascent intelligence bureau can help boost the numbers.

Around the Fishbowl

For the officers back in the intelligence bureau, it had been another relentlessly busy night. The shooting on 54th Street was the third in six hours. In the other two incidents, the victims died.

Housed in a cavernous South Philadelphia office building, officers there — some of whom sit in a glass-encased, TV-filled room known as the Fishbowl — spring into action quickly.

Once a shooting is reported, they search among the dozens of police-owned cameras across the city and start scrolling for video. At least one officer begins compiling information on the victims: where they live, if they have a criminal record, other indicators that might prove useful for investigators.

The cops also complete a “link analysis,” looking for people who have connections to the victim. Sometimes it’s people with whom they were arrested; other times it’s supposed gang affiliations or rivalries — intelligence the department has been gathering for several years.

The intelligence bureau sends a summary of the information to a broad list of police after each shooting, usually within an hour. One goal, said Lt. Brian Sprowal of the real-time crime center — a branch of the intelligence bureau — is to get that lead time down to a half-hour and to send a second report within a day.

“It’s about taking the resources we have in this room, and getting as much as we can get,” Sprowal said.

In the 54th Street shooting, the intelligence report had more holes than clues. No police cameras caught the act, and there were no obvious links to any attackers. The victim had a job, a stable family, and no criminal record. Those facts, combined with the pistol-whipping a few minutes before the shooting, led police to believe that the crimes and their targets were random, shaping how they continued the investigation, Walker said.

Police say other examples show how intelligence can help direct investigations.

Raymond Holman Jr.
Deputy Commissioner Joseph Sullivan

Sullivan, the deputy commissioner, said police in the real-time crime center used surveillance footage — and facial recognition technology — to help identify the two brothers charged with killing Gerard Grandzol, a community advocate shot last month outside his Spring Garden home.

Facial recognition software matched their likenesses, caught on surveillance footage, against mug shots the police already had, giving detectives a lead on Marvin and Maurice Roberts, ages 16 and 21, each of whom had criminal records.  With more investigation, two days after the crime police announced that the Roberts brothers had been arrested.

A September homicide on the 1500 block of Dyer Street, in Frankford, was caught on a police camera, and Sullivan said an officer in the district used the footage to identify a suspect, Kevin Robinson, 20, who was arrested this month.

Some defense attorneys, however, caution that rapidly increasing the use and dissemination of intelligence could be problematic, either by making innocent people de facto suspects, or by using purported links between people to seek harsher charges or penalties upon arrest.

“It’s one thing to get a broad range of information that is helpful,” said Paul Hetznecker, a Center City defense attorney whose cases frequently involve alleged police misconduct. “But the problem with that is if you’re starting to make associations that aren’t relevant to that particular investigation.”

Looking for patterns

Without an immediate lead on suspects in the 54th Street shooting, investigators that early morning turned their attention to other crimes in the area — robberies, shootings, assaults, gun arrests.

Identifying patterns is an important step for investigators short on tips — and also can inform patrol officers, who work to prevent gun violence.

One example: When three shootings happened within two weeks this summer around the 200 block of North Simpson Street, Capt. John Stanford, of West Philadelphia’s 19th District, decided to place a patrol car on the block 24 hours a day. Police also moved a surveillance camera onto a pole on the block’s north end.

Foot patrol officers now spend their shifts walking on Simpson Street and surrounding blocks. And Stanford has encouraged staffers to pursue proactive measures as well, such as throwing block parties to try to connect with residents.

No one has been shot on the 200 block of North Simpson Street since the tactical shift.

Clem Murray
Capt. John Stanford, 38, the commanding officer of the Philadelphia Police 19th District, talks with Randy Price, 59, an eight-year resident of the 200 block of North Simpson Street on Sept. 28, 2017.

“You’re not going to prevent every crime from happening,” Stanford said. “But people are going to know you’re trying.”

Investigators probing the 54th Street shooting were particularly alert to gunpoint robberies. Just a few hours after the shooting, it seemed they might have a hit.

Around 6:35 a.m., two men carrying guns had jumped out of a car on the 5200 block of Greenway Avenue and robbed a 37-year-old man of $200, then drove away.

The victim gave police part of the car’s license plate number, and the real time crime center quickly developed a list of registered vehicles in the area based on the partial tag. Shown the list of makes and models, he then honed in on one: a Nissan Altima. The intelligence bureau kept digging and determined that the car had been stopped frequently in the neighborhood over several months, according to Walker.

From there, they identified a driver in one of those stops, Kevin Jones, 29, of Southwest Philadelphia. And Jaron Fripps, 29, of West Philadelphia, was connected to Jones through the intelligence bureau’s “link analysis.”

After seeing separate photo arrays, the victim in the last robbery later identified each as his assailants, Walker said, and police obtained arrest warrants. As of Friday, Fripps remained at large, Walker said, while Jones had been picked up in Gloucester County and was awaiting extradition to Philadelphia.

Police did not yet have evidence tying Fripps or Jones to the shooting on 54th Street — just the fact that similar crimes happened hours earlier and a few blocks away.

Still, Walker hoped potential interviews with the suspects might yield more information. And he eventually intends to show photo arrays to the 30-year-old shooting victim. More than two weeks after the attack, he remains hospitalized, paralyzed from the chest down. He declined an interview request, fearful for his safety.

In the meantime, Kingsessing inevitably will have more shootings to investigate. But Walker said police will use all tools at their disposal to find those who pull the triggers on victims like the 30-year-old man.

“We owe it to him to continue this investigation to try and get someone in,” Walker said.