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Chitwood gives nuisance homes personal attention

OVER THE last month, about a dozen residents of Upper Darby Township have received an unexpected house call from an unusual guest - Upper Darby Police Superintendent Michael Chitwood.

Chief Michael Chitwood: Giving nuisance homes personal attention.
Chief Michael Chitwood: Giving nuisance homes personal attention.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

OVER THE last month, about a dozen residents of Upper Darby Township have received an unexpected house call from an unusual guest - Upper Darby Police Superintendent Michael Chitwood.

He's not serving warrants or handing out Christmas wreaths; he's delivering olive branches to people whose houses his officers have responded to a dozen or more times this year - for fights, domestic incidents, drug overdoses and a host of other issues.

"That's the new strategy; I am personally going out and dealing with these nuisance houses," Chitwood said. "People may not realize their house is a nuisance, but when the f---ing chief knocks on the door, it's like 'OK, they mean business.' "

It's an unusual measure of proactive policing for the outspoken lawman, whose department covers the sixth-largest municipality in Pennsylvania.

But perhaps what is most surprising is how some residents are reacting to Chitwood's visits.

They're reacting with gratitude.

When Racquel Smith-Archer was awoken by her children recently and told that Chitwood was waiting at her door on Greenwood Avenue - where police said they've been called 13 times this year - she was taken aback.

"I was surprised that my house was one of the ones that was picked, but it's good to know that the number of calls to my house was noticed by police," she said.

'Work with me'

Chitwood started making house calls because he was sick of sitting in morning meetings with his staff and hearing about how they were answering calls at the same houses time and time again.

Many of the houses had two things in common, Chitwood said: The residents were renters and most of the calls were for violence.

"I thought to myself, 'Let me go out there and personally knock on the door,' " Chitwood said. "I'm going to go out there with an open heart and reach out and convince people that 'It's your neighborhood, and I don't want to see anybody get hurt, so work with me.' "

Jerry Ratcliffe, chairman of the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University, said studies have shown that a few problem houses can cause a lot of work for police departments and a lot of headaches for neighbors.

"Often, especially disruptive families who don't function well as a family are also disruptive in the neighborhood," Ratcliffe said.

'Anybody home?'

On a recent Tuesday morning, the Daily News rode along with Chitwood and Upper Darby police Lt. Jim Reif as they made house calls to hot spots in the township.

Reif, an affable cop dressed in full uniform, served as Chitwood's backup in case anything unexpected went down.

Chitwood - who, on more than one occasion, has been known to wear a track suit to a news conference - was dressed in a suit and tie, over which he draped a long, beige trench coat.

Underneath the coat, Chitwood accessorized himself with something he rarely carries - a handgun.

The cops got no answer at the first door they knocked on, so Chitwood left his business card, and they drove to Smith-Archer's house on Greenwood Avenue near Crosley, where police have responded for threats, fights, vandalism and related offenses, Chitwood said.

When Chitwood and Reif knocked on the door, a young man answered.

"Hey, whaddya say?" Chitwood asked the boy. "Is your mom home?"

After a few minutes, Smith-Archer and her husband, Anthony Archer, came to the door.

"Mind if we step in?" Chitwood asked.

It was hard to hear from the street what Chitwood told the couple, but after a few minutes, Chitwood had everyone inside the house laughing.

Smith-Archer, 36, stepped onto the porch to speak with the Daily News. She said her family, which has five children between the ages of 3 and 19, had moved to the neighborhood in May.

She said she's made so many calls to police this year because the kids down the street are bullying her 12-year-old daughter.

"Then the adults want to get involved. It's been going on like this since May," Smith-Archer said. "I'm trying to get out of my lease so we can go."

Smith-Archer said she was surprised that the number of 9-1-1 calls she's made to the cops prompted a visit by the police chief.

"It's great, I'm surprised that he noticed," she said. "I'm hoping everything will calm down now."

Arnetta Archer, Archer-Smith's mother-in-law, came rushing over to the house after receiving a call from her son that Chitwood was at his front door.

When Chitwood explained what he was doing to Archer, she called it "a blessing."

"I've heard several people call [Chitwood] different names, but this means a lot, it means that they're looking to show their support for the community," said Archer, 53. "To see the chief and the lieutenant come knocking without a harassment call or a domestic or something of that nature, just to give a friendly visit to the community, is needed."

The final house Reif and Chitwood visited was across the street from Smith-Archer's on Greenwood Avenue.

As the cops approached, Chitwood turned and said: "Now, I don't know how this is going to go. We've been here for heroin and drug overdoses."

Weathered cardboard rested against the side of the house and a rusted grill sat on the porch.

Chitwood knocked. A dog started barking. Some could be heard shuffling inside.

"Anybody home?" he yelled.

A young man with a shaved head came to the door, followed by an older, disheveled man with a mop of dark, graying hair.

"We're going through our computer system," Chitwood said. "We're not arresting anybody. We're not here because we've been called. I don't have a warrant. I'm not here to lock anybody up.

"We're going to the houses we've been called to many times to say we want you to be safe. We want your neighbors to be safe. We want the police to be safe."

The older man, who wore a plaid, hooded Dickies jacket, dirty jeans and white socks stepped forward and spoke with Chitwood. Then, he spoke softly to the Daily News.

John Beltrante, 55, said he's lived in the house his entire life. He used to live there with his mother and sister, before both died of cancer in the home.

"I took care of them, but they should have never been treated in the house," he said. "They thought it would be better. It was not."

Beltrante now lives in the home with his wife and stepchildren. He was reluctant to say why police have been called to his house so many times.

"A lot of things happen, we let too many people stay here, and I'm too trusting and then I get robbed a lot," he said. "I have a hard time saying 'no.' You learn the hard way.

"I've gotta change," he said, trailing off.

When asked what he thought of the chief showing up at his door, Beltrante took a moment before answering.

"He's taking an interest. It seems like he cares," Beltrante said. "If he didn't care, he wouldn't have come. He wouldn't be bothering, I guess."

As Chitwood and Reif walked back to their cruiser, Smith-Archer ran up from her house across the street and asked the chief if she could get a photo with him, right there in the middle of Greenwood Avenue.

'A Ph.D. in street'

While Chitwood is more well-known for his brash language than his bedside manner - he's never thought twice about calling a suspect a "bum," a "moron" or a "scumbag" at a news conference - making house calls comes second nature to him.

Before his more than 30 years as a police chief, Chitwood worked as a cop in Philadelphia for 19 years.

"I bring to the table a Ph.D in street," he said. "And I'm still out here."

To this day, the 71-year-old still prefers dealing with people over dealing with paperwork.

"I love talking to people. This job is more customer service than it is anything else," he said. "If you look at the course of a day, how many times do you have a major call, but you're dealing with people all the time."

And when dealing with people, Chitwood said he has one philosophy that he passes down to every cop he hires:

"I don't care what kind of crime they did, you treat someone like you would want your family and yourself to be treated," he said. "People just want to be heard, so why do you need to be an a--hole?"

Ratcliffe, the criminal justice chairman at Temple, said Chitwood's house calls are starting conversations between community members and cops outside of "heat-of-the-moment" 9-1-1 calls.

"Most of the time when police interact with people it's under stressful circumstances," Ratcliffe said. "This shows it can be helpful to have a quieter moment, to have a more reflective conversation about the long-term goals of the police and the house."

Chitwood agreed.

"It gives the occupant of the house a chance to see police in a different venue, because any time they deal with police, it's always negative," Chitwood said. "This is a more proactive effort to prevent crimes from occurring and to help people retain their quality of life in the neighborhood.

"It doesn't mean there won't be a shooting tonight, but at least they can't say I wasn't there and I didn't care."

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