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Connections on the streets

Chester Police Officer Mark Crawford sees himself as part of the community, not at war with it.

Chester City police officer Mark Crawford is the quintessential beat cop.

As he patrols the streets where he grew up, residents invariably call his name, wave, or tell him about new babies.

"I believe in the city," said Crawford, 40, who is African American and grew up next to one of Chester's worst housing projects. "My dream as a kid was to be a cop."

It wasn't a dream that made his mother happy. Too risky, she said.

This impoverished city of 37,000 people has a murder rate twice that of Philadelphia and some of the state's highest rates for other serious crimes.

But Crawford, and many of his fellow officers, show that it's possible to police a tough city without the mass arrests used by some other small Pennsylvania cities - tactics that can leave communities embittered and hostile.

Police do use some questionable tactics, including mass strip searches. Chester City's loitering law is being challenged in state court as unconstitutional.

But unlike other small cities in the region, police don't give tickets for jaywalking. Chief John Finnegan said officers simply "don't have time" to cite large numbers of people for disorderly conduct.

Another important difference: Chester, with the county's largest African American population, has a diverse police force, with 33 black officers. By contrast, nearby Upper Darby - with the county's second largest African American population - has one black officer.

Crawford, who lives in Chester, sees himself as part of the community, not at war with it.

"I know where they come from," he said. "It helps me with what I'm doing now."

A 1985 graduate of Chester Upland High School, Crawford bounced between jobs, working as a security guard and selling SEPTA tickets.

While working for Chester's Department of Licenses and Inspections, he began to recognize stolen cars left in vacant lots and back yards.

Officers encouraged him to join the force. He waited eight years, until he turned 33. He's glad he did.

"I just wasn't mature enough," he said.

At the beginning of one Friday night shift, Crawford got a call to help chase down a man who had tossed a gun out his car window on I-95.

Crawford responded at 90 m.p.h.

When he reached the scene, other officers already had the suspect in handcuffs. Three children were in the car, one of them the driver's 5-year-old son, terrified and sweating in the heat.

Crawford took the boy to an air-conditioned police van and spoke with him quietly.

When a juvenile officer arrived, Crawford told the boy to get on his back.

"Legs on me, guy," he said to the now-smiling boy. "You've got a piggyback."

Later, back on the beat, Crawford made a quick side trip. He knew relatives of the driver, and he wanted to make sure someone picked up the children.

At a convenience store, a motorist stopped next to Crawford, radio blaring. "Turn it down," said Crawford, without raising his voice.

The driver, a young black man, immediately complied.

During his seven years on the job, Crawford says, he has issued only one citation for a noisy car stereo. "I used to be young and dumb," he said.

Next, there was a police complaint about loitering juveniles. Crawford rolled up on a group of youths. "Find somewhere to go," he said. They wandered away.

Another young man was sitting on a step. With his arm out the cruiser window, Crawford pointed up with his thumb and jerked it sideways, a signal that the youth should get moving. Without a word, the young man started walking.

The cruiser kept rolling.

What happened when people don't cooperate?

"I might have to get out on foot," Crawford said.

If he gets serious lip, he said, he sometimes writes disorderly conduct citations - no more than a dozen in seven years.

A supervisor once told Crawford that some other officers made more arrests.

"My stats will always be that way," he recalled telling the supervisor. "Check how many burglaries there were on my beat. That's the important stat."

Crawford said his relationships with the community frequently pay off.

Asked for an example, he offered one from two weeks before: A woman he knows had tailed a hit-and-run driver. She called Crawford and told him where to find the hit-and-run car.