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Forging bonds

Coatesville has a long history of racial strife and high arrest rates for minor crimes. But the town has new leaders, and they are reaching out to develop new solutions.

When school lets out on Coatesville's east side, Police Cpl. James Audette regularly stands on a busy corner in this old shot-and-beer steel town and watches the children walk by.

"Hi, Officer Audette," an African American elementary school girl said one day last month, smiling broadly. Another called his name and waved as she passed.

It's a sign, however small, that Coatesville's policing revolution is rolling.

For more than a decade, Coatesville police bred antipathy on the town's largely black east side with aggressive tactics that featured some of the highest arrest rates in Pennsylvania - and the nation - for minor crimes such as disorderly conduct and violating curfew.

In this, Coatesville's story is similar to those of other small, economically struggling towns in the Philadelphia region.

Undermanned, confronted with serious crime and dwindling resources, the largely white police forces in these cities fought back with blunt tactics to clear streets of drug dealers and idle teenagers.

The Coatesvivlle sweeps, aimed mainly at the black east side, inevitably snared many innocent people with the bad guys.

Two years ago, though, this long-frozen standoff began to crack. The town's growing African American population flexed its muscle and helped elect a new City Council, with a 5-2 black majority.

Simmering resentment about the years of tough policing exploded, with angry shouting matches at town hall.

Soon, the white police chief was gone, replaced by William H. Matthews, 61, an African American former street cop who had spent the last decade in a Washington think tank.

He arrived in the spring, bursting with optimism and reform ideas. He declared a new day in this town of 11,000, with a retooled crime-fighting strategy built on strong links to neighborhoods.

The tough streets of Coatesville are now a kind of laboratory, testing Matthews' theories of police work against the hard realities of history and crime, poverty and small-town politics. The outcome of the experiment is still in doubt.

'Why are you here?'

Ask Matthews to talk about policing and he sounds like a professor, rolling out his well-researched ideas with the ease of a polished public speaker.

Ask him about being a black man in America, and there's a flash of emotion.

"Most African Americans, mostly males, have experienced racial profiling," he said. "It's not the same as when I was a teenager, but yes, a lot of African American males have experienced a certain amount of profiling. It stems from police strategies."

When Matthews arrived in Coatesville, he set out to put his bedrock principle in practice: He went out on the street to listen.

One of the first things everyone wanted to know: Why would you come here?

It's a fair question.

Born in New York, he spent four years in the Air Force, part of it in the military police, and became a Washington street cop in 1970. He got degrees from Howard and American Universities.

He started a police squad for the Baltimore Housing Authority and, in 1993, joined the nonprofit Police Foundation.

He testified before Congress, hobnobbed with police leaders around the world and frequently spoke to journalists on everything from local watch groups in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to terrorism, preaching the values of community policing.

The cushy seat became uncomfortable, though. When he saw Coatesville's "police chief wanted" ad, he was intrigued. He realized he wanted to get back in the game, and prove his ideas could make a difference.

The town's economic troubles didn't scare him. The Baltimore Housing Authority had five times the population of Coatesville, and nearly everyone was poor.

Friends warned him to stay away. Small-town policing is often too insular, they said, too cut off from modern ideas in policing.

The man trying to recruit him, Harry G. Walker 3d, Coatesville's Harvard-educated, African American city manager, warned Matthews that the job would be "very difficult," and not everybody would welcome him.

Plus, taking the Coatesville job would have meant a big pay cut.

The way Matthews saw it, how could he refuse? He and his wife sold their home near Washington and rented a place in Coatesville.

Hitting the streets

He spent his first few weeks knocking on doors, many on the east side, meeting everyone from ministers to housewives.

All over the city, people said the same things: They wanted police protection. At the same time, residents of tough neighborhoods stressed: "You can't look at all of us as being bad guys."

"You don't want your friends and family stopped when they come down the block looking for a parking place just because they happened to cruise around the corner," he said.

To be sure, Matthews has not disavowed all confrontational tactics. "We got to take care of business and not apologize for it, because there are some people you have to separate from the community," he said.

Curfew enforcement is an example. Coatesville once stopped more teenagers out after curfew than nearly any town its size in America.

In one typical case from last year, 16-year-olds Darius Vaughn and Douglas Gray were on their way to a girl's house an hour after curfew, when an officer ordered them to put their hands on his car. He searched them and let them go. Later, both got citations in the mail, with fines of $100 each.

"It's not right. These are not bad kids," said Darius Vaughn's mother, Yolanda, complaining that African American teenagers were stopped far more frequently than whites.

Matthews says police should continue to enforce the curfew, and do it smarter: He wants to see community centers that offer kids an alternative to the streets.

But he says he doesn't want his officers detaining people under thin pretexts, such as stopping motorists for a broken taillight in order to search the car for drugs. That approach, he says, causes more problems than it solves.

"There are consequences for everything we do," he said. "And if you use that philosophy, you're going to get diminishing returns, a backlash, and the problems won't be solved. In fact, they will be exacerbated."

Another thing he absorbed during those conversations, he said, was the weight of Coatesville's past.

"If only we can leave behind our history," he said, "we can make it."

Troubled history

In a real way, Coatesville is still troubled by a murder - one nearly a century old.

Ask any African American about race relations in Coatesville, and the conversation usually turns to Zachariah Walker, the last man lynched in Pennsylvania.

In 1911, Walker was under arrest for killing a white steel company guard. He was dragged from a Coatesville hospital and burned alive in a field just south of the city as 5,000 spectators watched - women and children in the front. Pleading for his life, Walker tried to climb out of the flames, but townspeople pushed him back.

A county grand jury called witnesses but said that "a conspiracy of silence was formed among the citizens of Coatesville."

Coatesville's police chief and 15 others were charged in the killing, but everyone was acquitted. The chief ran for reelection and won.

In December 2006, local historians succeeded in putting up a memorial plaque on the lynching site, saying it was long past time for the city to confront past sins. "We've lifted the curse. The curse of Coatesville is no more," said Samuel C. Stretton, a West Chester lawyer.

Curse or no, the legacy of racism has continued to haunt Coatesville.

In 1957, Coatesville was one of three Pennsylvania school districts that the state identified as being the most segregated. When city school officials agreed to integrate, white parents responded with protests.

In 1973, a group of black workers filed a class-action suit against the city's largest employer, Lukens Steel Co. The company paid $3.7 million after a federal judge found that workers were "exposed to a wide range of racial harassments."

Soon, Coatesville began going the way of other rust-belt towns. Lukens and other factories began closing, and whites began leaving.

As the town struggled to find a new, post-steel age future, city planners rolled out one redevelopment plan after another. One was built on nostalgia, a theme of bringing back the old days when Coatesville was a bustling shopping center.

The plans foundered, one after another. A big reason, leaders concluded, was crime.

By the late 1980s, Coatesville was becoming Chester County's main drug marketplace, with a rising tide of gunplay and felonies.

Police responded by ramping up arrests, using statutes such as "obstructing" sidewalks to clear the streets in high-crime areas.

In 1990, blacks represented 40 percent of Coatesville's population but nearly three-fourths of the people arrested - mainly for minor offenses, FBI data show. On a per-capita basis, police made more arrests than only a handful of other American cities.

It would be a pattern that continued, with minor fluctuations, for 15 years.

These practices eventually wore deep scars of resentment in the African American community.

One researcher found that a belief in police bias was practically gospel in Coatesville's black neighborhoods.

"The police use a strong show of force whenever confronting any African Americans, no matter how small the infraction," wrote William J. Loewen, in a 2000 University of Pennsylvania study.

"They appear unable to differentiate between law-abiding blacks and law-breaking blacks."

A grand vision

The man most responsible for bringing Matthews to Coatesville was probably Dick Saha, owner of a large horse farm outside of town that was coveted by city officials.

It was all part of the grandest scheme yet: a $700 million remaking of downtown, a vision of Coatesville as the next Manayunk or New Hope. The jewel would be a 30-acre recreation complex, complete with bowling alleys, ice-skating rinks and 18 holes of championship golf - on Saha's 48-acre farm.

Many in Coatesville's black community were suspicious.

"It's a plan designed to get rid of certain sectors of the community, not by saying 'You can't live here,' just by making it too expensive," said former council president Rodgers Johnson, an African American.

When Saha refused to sell, city leaders tried to take the farm by eminent domain. When the city lost in court, the project collapsed, leaving the town $8 million in the red.

That was the catalyst for an upheaval in Coatesville's government. Black voters joined with dissatisfied whites to throw out four incumbent council members whom they blamed for the fiasco, including one who had served for 22 years.

The new members, three blacks and a white Methodist minister, voted as a bloc. Before long, they ousted the city solicitor and city manager.

In this atmosphere of change, the black community's long-stewing resentment about the police tactics finally exploded. Town hall meetings became intense debates about whether police were racially profiling.

At one session in 2006, after Inquirer reporters asked him about statistics showing a racial disparity in arrests, District Judge Robert L. Davis went to a council meeting and demanded answers.

He said the numbers confirmed his worry, formed after years of hearing cases, that Coatesville police were rounding up blacks in inordinate numbers.

"That's what I've been seeing here for years," he said in an interview, adding that he was particularly concerned about police citing people for "obstructing highways or public passages." Nine of 10 of people charged under that law were minorities, court records show.

"What's obstructing the highway? It's for standing on the sidewalk, and you do that at Midway Bar & Grill," he said, referring to a Coatesville bar popular with African Americans. When whites do the same thing across the street, he said, police leave them alone.

Police Chief Dominick Bellizzie resigned. Arrests, already down, kept dropping. But the storm continued.

At one boisterous council meeting after Bellizzie's resignation, residents told stories of poor treatment by police and complained about the lack of minority officers.

One African American man stood up in a meeting and declared, "If we can't hire black officers, maybe we need a chief of color."

Police tools

Before he even began work, Matthews was under siege.

Many of the old guard weren't happy with the new council's choice of Matthews, preferring a popular longtime lieutenant. Even Chester County's district attorney weighed in, calling the hiring process "deceptive."

Matthews took over a department roiled by allegations that police were having sex on the job. In one case, the sex allegedly was not consensual. No charges were filed.

Then, amid rumors that layoffs were imminent, six Coatesville officers resigned.

Immediately, Matthews felt under the gun to show results.

In May, after his officers conducted drug raids, Matthews wrote a letter to the local paper, calling the dealers "an embarrassment to their families and to a proud city."

Then came the extraordinary part. Although such arrests may be necessary, he said, "they rarely make a difference on the street."

Without community support, he said, such tactics "will be seen by some as an overbearing occupation and by others as an ineffective exercise that fails to stop drug trafficking."

"Simply put, we cannot arrest our way out of the illegal drug culture."

His remarks created a furor. Some wrote letters in support. Others said he should quit policing and become a social worker.

Matthews, impatient to remake the old culture in the department, is eager to replace the departed officers with his own hires. A priority, he says, will be trying to recruit minorities.

Like other police forces in the region's older suburbs, Coatesville's long ago stopped reflecting the town's citizens - about half of whom are African American. On a force of 28 officers, three are black.

But there are no guarantees Matthews will be able to hire anyone, because the town is almost broke. To succeed, he will have to convert his mostly white officers to a new way of doing things.

He's starting with the basics. First, he wants to get his cops out of their cruisers.

"The whole key is walking the streets. You have to do it enough of the time so that you know the community," he said - enough to learn who is a good citizen looking for a parking space, and who is cruising for drugs.

When a reporter asked to accompany an officer to see the new side of policing in Coatesville, Matthews chose Audette.

'Officer Friendly'

As Audette pulled up to his afternoon perch at Sixth Street and Lincoln Highway, neighbor Frederick Sharpe shouted a greeting.

Sharpe, an employee of the city recreation department, recently worked with Audette in a Police Athletic League program, helping nine kids refurbish old bicycles. At the end, they all went on a ride with Audette and his wife.

The kids were exuberant. Audette said he was exhausted.

Audette, 31, has lived his whole life about five miles west of Coatesville in Sadsbury Township, which is more than 90 percent white.

A 1995 graduate of Coatesville High School, he went to Penn State for two years, hated it, and paid to attend the Montgomery County Police Academy.

His wife is a mental-health worker in Coatesville, confronting some of the same problems. "She has a better understanding of what I go through, the social issues."

Audette long ago earned his bona fides as a crime fighter, earning commendations for bravery for helping arrest serious criminals - including an armed car thief he spotted while off duty.

He is well versed in Coatesville's old, aggressive style of policing.

Pointing to a pickup truck missing one bolt on its license plate, he explained how he could use that to justify stopping and searching the vehicle: Maybe the truck was stolen, he'd tell a judge, and the thief stuck on a different license tag.

Curfew stops of kids served the same purpose: "You stop a kid for curfew, you have to search them for guns and drugs," he said, adding that police repeatedly have found those items on teenagers.

For adults, he says, police used a law forbidding "loitering in a drug zone" - though the "zone" was never defined, and the busts rarely held up in Common Pleas Court.

Audette learned how to be a cop in that high-intensity system, patrolling Coatesville's tough, mostly black neighborhoods on a bicycle. Older now, he says he's less interested in making lots of minor arrests.

He says he was changed by two years as "Officer Friendly," the department's community relations officer. He now takes real joy from connecting with people, especially kids: "I just eat that up."

Meanwhile, Audette's education is still a work in progress. He confesses there are many things he does not understand about the black community.

"They have their own little society, their own little culture," Audette says, saying many blacks won't step forward when they witness crimes, even murders. "I don't understand it."

But he feels assured of one thing: Race is not the cause of the gulf between Coatesville's police and its African American citizens.

"I don't really think race is an issue," he said. "It's not an issue of black and white. You're in a uniform, you're the bad guy."

The other side

From the other side of this divide, Jerome Brazzle says race seems the entire issue.

One night in August 2003, Brazzle, 23, a carpet installer who lives on Coatesville's predominantly black east side, was standing on the sidewalk at Lincoln and Sixth, the same corner where Audette now greets school kids. He was waiting for an order of takeout chicken fingers from Dave's Corner restaurant.

An officer drove up and gave him a citation for "obstructing highways and public passages" - even though patrons of the restaurant rushed outside to tell the officer that Brazzle was a customer. His case was quickly dismissed.

Brazzle, who wears oversized T-shirts and work boots on most days, says his main activity outside work is taking care of his young son. But on the street in Coatesville, he feels police saw him as some kind of criminal.

"Every time you're on the street, you're either getting some bad looks from them, or they're circling," said Brazzle. "How many times can they search you for ID in one week?"

To a black reporter, Brazzle says: "If me and you walk down the street right now, and a cop seen me, they'll go real slow, like I was doing something. And then they circle the block. What am I doing wrong?"

Tough times

Matthews may have hurt his cause with some missteps, notably his failure to complete his Pennsylvania police certification, required for him to legally make arrests.

That drew criticism from Chester County District Attorney Joseph Carroll, and from some in the black community.

Mechanic Tyrone Harley, an African American garage owner whose business repeatedly has been vandalized, said the city should have hired more officers, instead of Matthews. "He can't even make an arrest," Harley said.

Matthews these days sounds more humble. When he talks about the future, he starts some sentences: "The person who occupies this office." He refers pointedly to the fact that he only has a two-year employment contract.

"I thought I could bring this department closer to the people. And make the people of Coatesville realize they could become engaged with the process," he said.

"The most difficult thing has been the constant warfare that I see in the city."

Yet the new chief may be winning some converts, one at a time.

Jerome Brazzle's brother, Jarrell, 21, a Cheyney University student who occasionally works for the city recreation department, has had his own minor brushes with police, receiving three disorderly conduct arrests and two for "obstructing highways." He got picked up once after he called an officer a "doughnut-eating [obscenity]."

But Jarrell Brazzle, a fixture at City Council meetings, caught the attention of Matthews. The chief asked him if he'd pitch in to solve Coatesville's gang problems.

"I told him I'd help him, of course," he said.

As Coatesville tries to shed its long history of conflict and confrontation, it's Audette - with his regular visits with kids on the main drag - who might provide a glimpse into a different sort of future.

From the street corner on Lincoln Highway, Audette says it feels like things are getting better, that the rigid atmosphere of hostility is starting to ease.

Yes, Audette says, many kids still spit at passing police cars, or throw the occasional stone.

This being Coatesville, Audette calls that progress: Years ago, people would heave cinder blocks at cruisers if police left them unattended in a housing project.

Carol Wroten, who lives across from Audette's after-school spot, says her 3-year-old grandson has watched Audette for the last two months.

"My grandson says he wants to see Officer Friendly," she said. "That's the value you want to teach your kids. Not to be afraid of police officers."

As the laughing kids pass by Audette, he smiles and waves back. He hasn't yet learned all their names. But he's working on it.