The federal Weed and Seed program has long had a sterling reputation as the enlightened way to turn around troubled neighborhoods.

The $55 million-a-year program, run by the Justice Department, was founded 16 years ago on the idea that curing blight required a double-barreled approach: intense policing to "weed out" drug dealers, gangs and violent criminals, and social programs to "seed" some much-needed human services.

Indeed, the Weed and Seed strategy has had some strong successes.

But an Inquirer review shows that the program has in recent years taken a different turn.

These days, some federal Weed and Seed grants seemingly have more to do with politics than crime-fighting. Grants are running out in some high-crime cities - like Camden - while new money goes to small towns with little drug-dealing or violence.

When Upper Darby became a Weed and Seed site before the November elections last year, then-Sen. Rick Santorum held a news conference to announce the $175,000 award. He said the money would go toward "weeding out violent criminals and drug abusers."

Upper Darby is hardly a trafficking hotbed. Last year, the township didn't report the arrest of a single drug pusher.

Instead, in its Weed and Seed application, Upper Darby said it would use the money to enforce "nuisance statutes" and state liquor laws in Stonehurst, a low-income, mostly African American neighborhood.

A racial divide

Other Weed and Seed cities have the same issues, a review shows. Although the program was founded on the idea of enlisting communities in crime-fighting, many grants now go to nearly all-white departments that aggressively enforce minor statutes in neighborhoods that are home to large numbers of minorities.

Upper Darby, with one black officer on a force of 127, is one of the whitest departments its size in the nation. Bristol Township has 69 officers, none black.

Dennis Greenhouse, who oversees the Weed and Seed program, said through a spokeswoman that the program did not consider the racial makeup of departments when it made grants. He declined requests for an interview.

But Greenhouse's predecessor says this lack of diversity, in a program tied to community relations, may be a prescription for failure.

"If you've got that kind of barrier, how are you going to have an effective Weed and Seed program?" asked Stephen Rickman, who ran Weed and Seed from 1994 until 2002. "It just makes it a lot harder."

Some of the same problems plague Pennsylvania's look-alike Weed and Seed program, which gives $3.5 million annually to 15 cities.

For years, the state has handed grants to overwhelmingly white departments; officials said they, too, simply didn't consider race when distributing the grants, or measuring the program's impact.

Early successes

The federal program was created in 1991 as a creative way to combat the violent crack epidemic that was washing over America's cities.

One of Weed and Seed's first successes in cutting the murder rate was in Kansas City, Mo., where police focused on seizing illegal guns.

"It succeeded in persuading people to leave guns at home," said University of Pennsylvania criminologist Lawrence Sherman, who helped design the program.

In Philadelphia, the successes, and the limitations, of Weed and Seed are vividly illustrated in one of the initial programs, Norris Square. The heart of the neighborhood was once so overrun with drugs that it was known as "Needle Park."

What worked: money, lots of it. During the first year, the federal government pumped $2.3 million into the Kensington-North Philadelphia zone, and the funding kept flowing.

Meanwhile, Norris Square residents began to regularly stage night drug vigils - which prompted police to send even more patrols to keep them safe.

Remarkable things began to happen, said Carol Keck, a Catholic nun who helped spearhead the program. "We'd be on those drug vigils, and we'd have people come up and say 'How do I get off this stuff,' " Keck said. "We'd get them to the hospital."

Even with the serious funding and intense focus, the program couldn't rescue the entire North Philadelphia target area. A 1997 Temple University audit said the problem was simply too big.

"Unfortunately, as quickly as an open-air drug location is shut down, new dealers step in to resume drug dealing," the audit said.

But Keck says the lessons of Norris Park show that Weed and Seed can save some neighborhoods - with enough money, community involvement and patience.

Today, "Needle Park" is long gone. Developers are scouting Norris Square, property values are up and the square has a new nickname: "

Parque de las Ardillas

," the Park of the Squirrels.

Less money, more cities

Now, Weed and Seed is spreading its resources more thinly, making it more difficult to help the cities with the worst crime.

In the early years, communities could receive $500,000 a year for three years. Now, funding starts at $175,000 the first year, and ends after five.

"I don't think the Weed and Seed thing is comprehensive enough, nor are the funds adequate," said Hubert Williams, president of the Washington-based Police Foundation.

Time ran out on one of two Camden Weed and Seed sites this year, leaving the city with $225,000. That's the same amount of funding that goes to Calais, Maine, a small town near the Canadian border with little crime and few drug arrests.

Calais City Manager Linda Pragels says a big problem is kids "getting into the medicine cabinet" and stealing parents' Xanax or OxyContin.

For violence-wracked Camden, "that money is really hard to replace," said Wren Ingram, coordinator for the city's remaining Weed and Seed program. "Some of the projects just aren't going to survive."

Contact staff writer Mark Fazlollah at 215-854-5831 or mfazlollah@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Dylan Purcell contributed to this article.