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Police patrols are a way of life at Upper Darby school

A half-hour before the dismissal bell rings at Beverly Hills Middle School, Upper Darby police officers begin lining up outside.

A half-hour before the dismissal bell rings at Beverly Hills Middle School, Upper Darby police officers begin lining up outside.

They conduct the operation with military precision. Nearly every school day, patrol cars sit bumper-to-bumper to the east of the school, then fan out, being stationed on the corners of each block leading to the African American part of town, near the Philadelphia city line.

From the moment the children leave the school, behaving and misbehaving as early adolescents do, police are circling them on bikes, telling them to move along or to stop being smart-mouthed or to get out of the street.

If there's a fight, officers sometimes bring out the police dogs.

Youths who don't stay on the sidewalk are cited for jaywalking and handed tickets carrying hefty $92 fines. The majority of those cited are African American, among them sixth graders Symira Henderson and Jameelah Burley, both 12 years old when they were ticketed in January. An 11-year-old classmate, whose parents did not want her name used, also got a ticket.

"It all happened so fast," said Jameelah, barely 5 feet tall, with an impish grin and stubby ponytail. She said she and her friends didn't mean to defy police, only get across the street.

As Philadelphia's older suburbs struggle to balance issues of crime and enforcement, race and class, these school-day patrols in Upper Darby open a window into the clashing perceptions of police and the black communities they say they are trying to protect.

Upper Darby police say the patrols have a simple goal: keeping kids safe.

"What happens is, the high school kids fight with the middle school kids, the middle school kids fight with the grade school kids," Chief Michael Chitwood said.

The patrols, begun in the early 1990s, are used only on the schools on the eastern side of town, where most African Americans live.

Chitwood shrugs off questions about whether the enforcement has a racial dimension, saying those streets are where the trouble starts.

"If it wasn't a problem, we wouldn't be out there," he said. "I have better things to do with my officers."

'Intimidating the children'

To the students, their parents and some other Upper Darby black residents, the patrols seem far too harsh and unfairly aimed at only African American students.

Yes, these adults say, the kids can get rowdy. But viewed through the lens of race and history, these patrols - dogs, a police cordon, officers writing tickets to preteenagers - stir feelings ranging from discomfort and resentment to anger.

The use of dogs is particularly sensitive, carrying unpleasant echoes of the civil-rights marches of the 1960s.

"That's just another way of intimidating the children," said Yeadon NAACP president Linda Osinupebi, whose chapter covers Upper Darby.

Jameelah, the 12-year-old, said the dogs terrified her when police had them at Beverly Hills early in June: "Soon as they brought the dogs out, I had to go."

Chitwood says that the dogs are used judiciously and that no child has ever been bitten. "If there is a large crowd, and there's going to be a fight, they take the dogs out," he said.

Parents say they, too, want their children safe - but worry that these patrols will boomerang and turn their children against police.

It may already be happening with Symira, a young girl who wears bright green sneakers with pink laces.

"I think they hate blacks because they're always arresting black people for dumb reasons like jaywalking," she said.

Keep the Philly kids out

Beverly Hills Middle School is a bellwether for Upper Darby's rapidly changing demographics. In 1990, only 5 percent of students were African American. By 2002, the school was more than half black.

Upper Darby teacher Faith Mattison has worked for nearly three decades at Beverly Hills, and has watched as the town struggled with racial change.

"They're no different than the rest of the country. They did not adapt well," said Mattison, 60, the first black teacher to work in Upper Darby schools. "It is like something out of the '60s."

The township's police force, all-white until four years ago, has little understanding of the black community, said Mattison, now working at one of the district's elementary schools.

"If you are in a group that has no people of color, you don't know any other way," she said. "You just strong-arm the best you can."

At the same time, Mattison says, police have real problems with some Beverly Hills Middle students; they're much quicker to fight than they were when she began teaching.

"I live in Philadelphia. I am black. But I saw the level of violence change. I wasn't as comfortable as I was," she said.

Police acknowledge the patrols serve a second purpose: Officers check IDs to make sure Philadelphia youths aren't sneaking into Upper Darby schools.

Symira said the officer who gave her a ticket asked her where she lived. "But he didn't believe me, so he grabbed my book bag to look in it so he could check a paper." He called the school to check.

Senior school officials enthusiastically support the patrols. Like police, they say the police deployment has nothing to do with race.

Louis DeVlieger, assistant superintendent for the Upper Darby School District, said officers simply aren't needed in the district's other middle school, in predominantly white Drexel Hill. The population density is lower, he said, and there are fewer children on the streets.

According to DeVlieger, the children who get tickets deserve them.

"These are kids that are really being defiant," he said. "These kids have been pushing it, pushing it, to get these tickets. There's got to be consequences for actions."

Troublesome memories

For African Americans who grew up in Upper Darby, the memories of the police patrols still rankle.

Yvette Presley, who works for SEPTA monitoring fare collections, remembers officers' calling black youths "P-Diddy," a reference to the rap artist.

"They used to follow us every single day, the kids walking toward Bywood, the elementary school," she said, the same route that Jameelah and Symira had gone.

"I've never seen them pull over anyone but African Americans for jaywalking."

Andrew Duncan, 19, now a student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said he and his family were the first African Americans on his block when they moved to Wiltshire Road in 1994. White neighbors quickly sold and left, he said.

Every day, Duncan says, officers watched him and his friends as though they were potential criminals as they walked home from Beverly Hills and, later, Upper Darby High. Duncan was ticketed twice.

"I knew it wasn't right, but there was nothing I could do about it," he said.

Unpredictable reactions

Few things are predictable when dealing with policing and race. For example, consider the viscerally different reactions from two police officers who worked the Upper Darby patrols - one the town's lone black patrolman, the other a retired white detective.

The white detective, Ray Britt, who retired in 2004, said the patrols had a lot more to do with soothing anxious homeowners than protecting children.

During two years on the bike patrol, he said, he was ordered to hurry along schoolchildren, typically African American, as they walked through mostly white neighborhoods.

"We were to herd them like cattle to their homes," he said, adding that he regrets going along with the orders: "I allowed supervisors to influence me to do something that wasn't morally correct.

"I am ashamed of the way I did my job."

His opinion is not shared by Jerome Brown, the only African American on Upper Darby's force of 127 officers. Brown, too, worked the bike patrols, and wrote tickets to children on their way home.

But Brown says it was for their own good. He said he only got out his ticket book after children ignored repeated warnings to get back on the sidewalk.

"The sidewalks are small. The schools are big. You've got to keep the kids moving.

"We're just trying to keep everyone safe," he said. "And it's not easy.

"If you have a large group of kids, how do you get them to listen? Their parents are against you. We get the finger from little 10-year-old kids."

What are the benefits?

Black parents, too, are caught in the same ambivalence - aware of how difficult it can be to control groups of children, worried that police might push too hard.

Lynette Halstead, Symira's grandmother, keeps a Bible open in a basket on the bathroom windowsill. She's raised the sixth grader since she was 5, and wants her to learn how to respect authority.

But she says it's not surprising her granddaughter mistrusts the Upper Darby police.

There are plenty of children who cause trouble, she said, but "not all kids are like that. The ones who are trying to be good, by going after them for every little thing, you actually push them in the other direction."

By treating little girls so harshly, she said, the police are putting families like hers in a difficult position.

"How is this benefiting society?" asked Halstead. "We're making them criminals."