YOU COULD BE forgiven for thinking Philadelphia's biggest problems have been limited recently to pope fences, a dismembered traveling robot and Chip Kelly's roster moves.

Violent-crime numbers - a quality-of-life measurement temporarily forgotten in the basement of the city's consciousness - have been climbing.

As of Sunday night, 152 murders had been recorded - a 5 percent increase from the same point last year, when the tally stood at 141, according to police statistics.

The number of Philadelphians who have been shot has risen 9 percent, hovering at 627 victims as of last Monday, compared to 572 at the same time last year.

Both figures pale, of course, to the bad old days of 2007 and 2008, when it seemed that crime-scene tape was unfurling on a different street corner every few minutes.

But the uptick still means something to people who live in neighborhoods where the sound of wailing ambulance sirens is part of the nighttime routine, a confirmation that they'd heard gunshots, not firecrackers, echoing through their streets.

Against that backdrop, the Philadelphia Police Department this week launches a new crime-prevention effort on business corridors in poorer pockets of the city.

To be clear, the pilot program - SafeGrowth and Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design - isn't a knee-jerk response to the spike in shootings and murders.

The program, which aims to build a stronger and more-productive bond between cops and business owners, has been in the works for quite some time, said Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel.

The seed was planted two years ago at a meeting attended by Bethel, a Commerce Department official and about three dozen representatives from neighborhood business-improvement districts.

H. Ahada Stanford, the director of neighborhood strategies in the city Commerce Department's Office of Neighborhood Economic Development, said Bethel asked those in attendance how many worked with or knew the beat cops in their districts.

"About two people raised their hands," she said, "so we looked at each other and realized there was a disconnect there. We needed to do something about it."

The project is built on a simple idea: Business owners and beat cops each know plenty about the problems lurking in the neighborhoods where they spend most of their waking hours, but don't always work together to address those issues.

"I don't think any of this is new," Bethel said. "But we're taking a few steps back, doubling down and being more strategic about how we work together."

Cops will have some freedom to adjust their approach, based on the needs of businesses with which they they come into contact, he said.

Some areas might require cosmetic fixes - new street lights here, some regular street cleaning there. Other neighborhoods might be struggling with problems that have deeper roots. Take, for example, Point Breeze, where community activist Anton Moore had a crowd of wide-eyed teens and preteens gather around an empty casket at a peace-themed event at Wharton Square Park last week, in an effort to underscore the need to make better choices in life.

"It's not one-size-fits-all," Bethel said.

'Hookers, bums, addicts, crazies'

The area around Kensington and Allegheny avenues is one of the eight commercial corridors targeted by the pilot program.

Maria Vazquez didn't hesitate last week to list the neighborhood's problems as she stood behind a Plexiglas wall inside King's Discount Convenience Store, on the corner of K&A.

A woman muttered on the pavement outside, sipping from a can wrapped in a plastic bag as the Market-Frankford El rattled overhead.

"Hookers, bums, addicts, crazies - we got a little bit of everything on this avenue," said Vazquez, 40, a lifelong area resident.

She said she "babysits" King's and other stores on the avenue when their owners need to run errands.

"The cops are at Somerset [Street] a lot, so that pushes all of the hookers and drug dealers down here," she said.

"It's not scary, because I know everyone around here, but when I go home, I don't come back out."

'Tie in tight'

Officer Ruben Santiago leaned against his bicycle yesterday and mulled what business owners in Fairhill might say they want from the Police Department.

"Probably for us to have more of a presence," said Santiago, 38, who will be among the cops taking part in SafeGrowth.

"The biggest challenge we have out here is a lack of trust for the police," he said.

"A lot of people feel as though if they come out and speak about things that are going on around here, they'll be thrown under the bus.

"We can't watch their house 24 hours a day, so they get scared about sharing information."

Santiago has spent his 12-year career in the 25th District. He patrols the commercial corridor, which runs north, starting at 5th Street and Lehigh Avenue, for eight hours a day.

Gunbattles over drug turfs have plagued the surrounding residential neighborhood for as long as he can remember. Drug overdoses are a constant fixture, too, along the railroad tracks on 5th Street near Clearfield.

"Someone found a body there this morning," Santiago said. "I couldn't tell who he was. He had already decomposed pretty badly."

The mood wasn't nearly as grim outside Jerry's Ladies Fashions at 5th and Cambria streets.

"Honestly, I think it's gotten a lot better around here," said Kevin Schaff, 50, whose family has owned the clothing store for 85 years.

"The low point was probably the '80s. There were a lot of murders, a lot of violent crime. You had 20 guys on every street corner."

Schaff said that the local police officers are responsive and engaged, but that the relationship between cops and businesses could be stronger.

"The police are actually always at our [community] meetings, but a lot of the business owners don't turn out," he said. "If there was more cooperation from the businesses, we could do a lot more around here."

Capt. Mike Cram, commander of the 25th District, said SafeGrowth can improve that connection on the 5th Street corridor.

"We really need to tie in tight with these businesses and the CDCs [Community Development Corporations]," he said.

"The cops are learning how to do more than regular police work and chasing 9-1-1 calls. We want people to feel like we're a part of their organizations."

'Different animal'

SafeGrowth is the brainchild of Gregory Saville, a criminologist and urban planner who began experimenting with the program in 2000 at the Center for Advanced Public Safety Research at the University of New Haven, in Connecticut.

Saville, who developed police-training programs for the U.S. Department of Justice, explained the tenets of the program to a roomful of Philly cops last week in the basement of the PECO Building in Center City.

With the help of the New York-based Local Initiatives Support Corp., SafeGrowth found success in other cities in the U.S. and Canada by having cops, residents and business owners come together to identify problems, create action plans and then review and revise as time wore on.

"These small businesses are important, but sometimes they might feel as if they're forgotten," Bethel said. "We have to show them empathy."

Business owners around 52nd and Market streets, West Philadelphia's once-thriving district, seemed interested in the prospect of a new collaborative effort.

"During the day, it's safe out here. There's a pretty good police presence, a lot of SEPTA cops," said Saadat Abdul-Mu'mim, 38, a sidewalk vendor.

"At night, it's a whole different animal."

Abdul-Mu'mim singled out loiterers as the strip's most consistent nuisance.

Stanford, of the Commerce Department, said that "eateries that have social behaviors that folks don't like, that frighten people," would probably be another issue that business owners complain about.

Cops couldn't shut down a problem shop like that, but they could put concerned residents in touch with a city agency that would make an impact, she said.

"It's not just about the cops," Abdul-Mu'mim said. "People around here need to be a part of the change they want to see."

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