Wednesday, September 20, 2006

"The People Are Not With the Leadership on This"

Northeast Times reports Mayor’s malaise.

Much of the public sees a rise in shootings and murders and argues for more police officers.

Mayor John Street, though, said the police department is sufficiently staffed.

"The number we have is more than adequate," he said.

Last week, Street invited reporters from the city’s weekly newspapers to City Hall for a roundtable discussion on crime.

In his opening remarks, the mayor corrected what he believes is a widespread misconception.

"Crime is not up," he said.

Sitting in on the session were Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson, Managing Director Pedro Ramos and Cheryl Ransom-Garner, commissioner of the Department of Human Services.

While acknowledging the increase in shootings and homicides, Street said other parts of the nation are experiencing the same trend. He added that overall crime has dropped in recent years.

Philadelphia is on pace for almost 400 homicides this year, an alarming rate on the surface.

"One is too many," Johnson said.

Street, though, noted that there were 400 or more murders in nine of the 11 years before he took office in 2000. In 2002, the city saw a 17-year low of 288 homicides.

This decade, the city has averaged about 6,800 police officers. The number was about 8,100 in the 1970s when Frank L. Rizzo — a former police commissioner — was mayor.

Philadelphia averaged about 390 murders in the 1970s, a number that has been cut to about 329 since 2000.

"Less police, fewer homicides," Street said, though he did not take into account that the city was more heavily populated 30 years ago.

A look at the motives for the 380 murders last year indicates that 97 percent of victims were targeted by their killers — they were not random killings. Many homicides took place indoors and followed arguments.

There’s little chance, the mayor argues, that police officers can stop those types of killings.

Besides, he said, hiring new officers is costly and would lead to higher taxes and service cuts and bust the city’s five-year plan.

Johnson has put more officers on the street and created a tactical unit that works nights, though he acknowledges that there aren’t enough patrol cars to answer the 3 million-plus annual calls to the 911 emergency system.

Street anticipates that candidates running next year to succeed him will call for the hiring of 500 police officers.

"You ought to ask them where the money comes from," he said.

The city will not bring in the National Guard or declare a state of emergency, Street said, because that would lead to negative stories in out-of-town newspapers and on cable TV broadcasts, hurting Philadelphia’s image and economy. Such measures are not necessary, he added.

Instead, the city has short- and long-term plans to combat crime.

"It has to be a holistic type of approach," Johnson said.

The city is working with its agencies, community groups and federal officials on a variety of programs. The proposed and existing initiatives include anger management and parenting classes, job training and recruitment of block captains and Town Watch members.

Soon, Street will announce what he describes as an aggressive anti-truancy campaign. Up to 32,000 public school students — about one-seventh of the citywide enrollment — are absent on any given day.

"If a child doesn’t go to school," the mayor said, "only bad things can happen."

Ransom-Garner, the DHS head, explained that police forward the names of minors who violate curfew. The agency has an array of services to deal with curfew violators, truants, delinquents and others.

Curfew for anyone age 17 and under is 10:30 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. There’s no reason for teenagers to be out past that time, according to Ransom-Garner.

"That’s when they get in trouble," she said.

Street opposes some proposed solutions. For instance, he’s against armed police officers in schools.

And, he is wary of a call by City Controller Alan Butkovitz for the state legislature to enact a measure making it easier for police to stop and search parolees who have committed violent crimes with weapons. He labels that a "dangerous proposition," though Johnson appeared with the controller when he announced his idea.

The mayor does think state legislators can help the city in another way, by passing laws that permit individuals to purchase only one gun per month, make possession of an illegal firearm a felony and require gun owners to maintain weapons in a secure lock box and immediately report lost, stolen or missing firearms to police.

On Sept. 26, he is urging citizens to ride city-sponsored buses to Harrisburg, where state lawmakers are dedicating a day to a discussion of crime. There will be a rally at the Capitol, a news conference and visits to the offices of legislators.

The city will likely want to engage House Speaker John Perzel and state Rep. Dennis O’Brien, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Street believes the National Rifle Association is intimidating lawmakers into inaction on gun laws, but public opinion is going the other way.

"The people are not with the leadership on this," he said.

Action is needed, according to Street, because guns have become the weapon of first resort — not last resort — to settle disputes over drugs and other issues.

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