When seven young doctors working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation finished examining the epidemic of violence in West and Southwest Philadelphia in the fall, they prescribed an old-fashioned remedy:

Block captains.

Not the traditional type. Not the 6,300 or so beautifiers and human Rolodexes who sweep and clean and serve as a sort of light in the window to ward off the wrong element.

What the doctors - all Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars and recent Penn Med residents - ordered are more people like Brittney Harris. A blood transfusion for the neighborhoods.

Her turf is the 5400 block of Addison Street in West Philly. Her job is seeing that the kids are doing something constructive after school. She is 16.

"I always see them and wonder why they're not doing their homework," says the sophomore at the Academy of Notre Dame de Namur in Villanova. "They tease me sometimes, asking why I don't go out, but I tell them I have work to do."

In September the doctors issued a 65-page report that urges Philadelphia to pilot a junior-block-captain program in the west and southwest, which have 20 percent of the city's population and 30 percent of its homicides.

Home grown

The idea, and it's an idea looking for funding, was suggested by Julia Chinn, who runs a mentoring program for preteens and teens in her neighborhood at 61st and Spruce, says one of the scholars, Matt O'Brien, an internist.

Since 1969, Chinn has headed an association of captains and bossed her block. That's


in a soft spoken, lead-by-example way.

"I think that an organization of junior captains, both male and female, would give these children some insight into what real life is all about," said the former member of the MOVE Commission who lost a son to gang violence in 1990.

"Being a junior captain puts positive thoughts in children's minds, especially if we're there instructing them. I guess I'm old-fashioned - I believe in training up a child."

She says it's not easy selling young people on the job. "A lot of them want to come in and try, but because of peers, they're reluctant. Some have their own mind and don't care what others think."

Others think of captaining as a job for snitches. Forget about snitching, she says. The question is, "Do you tell the truth?"

A captain, she says, is not someone who just sweeps and plants flowers in old tires. "That's how we started out years ago," she said, when the Streets Department's Philadelphia More Beautiful program organized captains in 1965.

"The job's about being concerned for your whole community. Each block's concerns are different. We need to care for the elderly and listen to our younger people. I just think it takes everybody to raise a child."

Another hand

A second old head advising the scholars is Frances Walker, a longtime community activist who created a junior-block-captain program in West Philadelphia in 1987, when crack was starting to rampage through the neighborhood.

"There's so much violence and criminality. Young people have not been exposed to anything but that. We're trying to develop options."

The scholars identify some obstacles. Many captains have been around so long that they're not interested in being proactive. And the Streets Department would not share its list of captains "to avoid it being used for political or commercial solicitation purposes."

Buddy Martin, who runs the city program, told me he would like to work with the scholars. "We need all the help we can get," he said. Those 6,300 volunteers cover about 15 percent of the city's blocks.

He cautions those seeking to deputize more people in the fight against crime:

"It's crazy, the madness out on the street. You have to be careful if you're the eyes and ears on the street. If [criminals] think it's the block captain telling on them, the captains are going to catch hell."