39th District police captain gets high marks from community that deems him ‘one of us’

 Capt. Michael Craighead at 39th District Headquarters. (Matthew Grady/for NewsWorks)

Capt. Michael Craighead at 39th District Headquarters. (Matthew Grady/for NewsWorks)

Standing before a gathering of police commanders and community members last November, newly-appointed 39th Police District Capt. Michael Craighead vouched for the importance of widespread participation in restoring neighborhoods.

He spoke about a personal commitment to being responsive to community issues, a promise that he made before assuming command.

“We will do it: We will help you,” he said. “All you have to do is call us.”

How he got here

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Craighead was installed as the 39th District’s commanding officer last November during a vast reshuffling of departmental leadership citywide. He is responsible for a patrol area that includes East Falls, southwest Germantown and sections of North Philadelphia.

Currently a Northwest Philadelphia resident, Craighead was born and raised within the district’s boundaries.

“It does not look the way it did when I was younger,” said the 22-year department veteran earlier this year, recalling his background.

Craighead joined the department in 1990, and spent the 10 years prior to his current assignment as a lieutenant in the PPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau.

Subsequent to his promotion, Craighead said he was asked by police-department brass about his vision for the 39th District.

“With my being born there, I know what it was like — what it was — and I can see what it is,” he recalled telling his superiors. “I want my time at the 39th to be one of partnership.”

Speaking with the Captain

According to departmental statistics, homicides in the 39th District are down an impressive 48 percent this year-to-date while aggravated assaults at gunpoint are down 21 percent and residential burglaries are down 17 percent.

In an interview held on Monday at district headquarters, Craighead attributed the decreases to changes in the tactical deployment of his officers on foot beats, bikes and in patrol cars.

“I look at bike patrol as my light infantry and the cars as the heavy artillery,” he said, explaining that each moves at a different pace.

As such, Craighead put his bike officers – who tend to be younger – in places where they could foster relationships with residents and business owners. In addition, bikes afford flexibility for police captains, allowing for ongoing adjustments in their assignments.

Complementing the changed tactics is an emphasis on community engagement that enables responsiveness and crime-prevention outreach.

“Community education is the key to any decreases in these crime categories,” he said.

Hands-on approach

A case study for its benefits came this year when a young man later identified as Jamal Perkins allegedly committed more than a dozen armed robberies in East Falls and Southwest Germantown.

Craighead explained that once the robbery pattern was established, he recognized that the neighborhood’s limited size and natural boundaries provided police with certain advantages.

Cops were assigned in several different capacities, including foot, bike and regular patrols, in addition to plainclothes officers. For a few weeks, their presence was both seen and felt in East Falls.

“You don’t want anyone to suffer, and you want to do it as quickly as possible,” he said.

Craighead and his staff also exchanged information with residents in both public and private settings. The police presence no doubt had a deterrence effect, as the robberies immediately subsided.

Arrested in connection with another robbery, Perkins admitted to the East Falls robberies in a statement made to detectives in June. He was held for court on the robbery counts in October.

“You hope things come to a positive conclusion,” said Craighead. “It looks like it’s been pretty quiet up there.”

Neighborhood reactions

Eighth District Councilwoman Cindy Bass characterized the transition from former 39th District commanding officer Verdell Johnson to Craighead as being very smooth. She said Craighead has been continually responsive to requests from her office.

Ronald E. Hinton, Jr., president of the Allegheny West Foundation, concurred. He said he felt that Craighead hit the ground running from the first day he arrived.

“He clearly wanted to make an immediate positive impact in this community,” said Hinton, “and he’s done just that.”

Hinton observed that Craighead or one of his officers have appeared to bring timely crime reports to North 22nd Street Merchants Association meetings.

“What I respect the most about Capt. Craighead is that he really is ‘one of us’,” explained Hinton. “He’s not a transplant that was just assigned to work in the Allegheny West Neighborhood of North Philadelphia. He grew up in North Philadelphia so he understands the culture and the people who live here.”

Hinton feels so positive about the work of Craighead and the officers of the 39th District that his organization sponsors a monthly “Officer of the Month” plaque presentation in conjunction with Pep Boys.

“Capt. Craighead gets it,” Hinton concluded. “He understands that when police, business owners and community work together, there can be some positive outcomes.”

Responsiveness appreciated

Not every neighborhood leader has had reason to interact with Craighead, but those who have told NewsWorks of favorable exchanges.

Barnaby Wittels, president of the East Falls Community Council, noted that Craighead has been more responsive to community concerns than previous commanding officers in the 39th.

Specifically, Wittels mentioned Craighead’s deployment of police officers to Henry Avenue to help curb speeders. This act, along with electronic signage obtained in conjunction with 4th District Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr.’s office, has made what Wittels said was a noticeable “dent” in the disregard of traffic safety along the heavily-traveled corridor.

Lisa Hopkins, leader of the Northwest Neighbors of Germantown, said representatives of her organization and Eighth District Councilwoman Cindy Bass’ office met with Craighead in November to discuss a rise in drug activity in the area of Queen Lane, which Hopkins believed was the result of the closing of the nearby PHA towers.

Hopkins recalled that residents asked for a police mini-station near Queen Lane and for plainclothes police to be deployed in the area.

She indicated that no definitive commitments were given for the mini-station, but said that police have made numerous drug-related arrests in and around the boundaries of her civic organization.

“We have had interactions with Capt. Craighead,” she said, “and we have seen results.”

What’s next?

While looking to continue the strides made in combating violent crime, Craighead said he hopes to get the 39th District onboard with GunStat, the program unveiled in 2012 that tracks gun violence in Philadelphia and targets violent offenders.

At the tactical level, Craighead will push for additional foot beats.

“They will be key for us in 2014,” he said. “The community loves to see them out there.”

Acknowledging that the police department is a conduit to city services for many residents, Craighead said that he hopes to develop a stronger relationship with Licenses and Inspections to help quell the criminal spill-over that vacant properties and illegal rooming houses tend to have on neighborhoods.

And, to further engage the community, Craighead said that he hopes to log more personal appearances at community meetings.

While pleased with the positive reports submitted by several community leaders, Craighead was equally enthusiastic when told that several leaders had no issues that warranted his attention in the previous year.

“If they said I haven’t had any reason to deal with them,” he concluded, “I take that as a plus.”

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