This year is off to an especially deadly start for the City of Chester, with seven homicides since Jan. 1.
Responding to residents’ concerns, Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland and Police Commissioner Otis Blair have promised to step up policing in spite of some significant obstacles.
In a press briefing Monday, neither official could point to a single cause for the upswing. For comparison, the city in Delaware County had 27 homicides during all of 2016.
By way of explanation, Kirkland offered several factors that may have contributed to the wave, including a reduction to the police force.
“In 2016, we experienced an unprecedented amount of resignations and departures from tenured police officials within the department,” said Kirkland. Those resignations came faster than expected, and reduced force numbers from 98 to 75, before 10 new hires brought the complement up to 85.
Over the last year, the state has pressured Chester, a city of more than 34,000, to reduce its public safety costs to try to reverse an annual, mounting budget deficit.
Kirkland vowed more patrols in high crime areas, and Blair said six more hires are in the pipeline.
Another deterrent missing, according to officials, are surveillance cameras.
“The problem we have here in the City of Chester is there’s not enough surveillance video feeds,” said Blair, referring to cameras in private businesses as well as those operated by the city in high-crime areas.
In addition stepping up patrols and community partnerships, Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland said the city is adding incentives for cooperating with investigators.
“I have decided to increase the reward amount from $5,000 to $10,000 for any person who has information leading to the arrest and conviction for a person committing a homicide,” announced Kirkland.
The $5,000 reward has been in place for more than a year, but so far has had no takers, pointing to another problem facing Chester — a lack of trust between residents and police.
Last year, the city announced a partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services to independently evaluate its practices, in the wake of multiple police-involved shootings and repeated civil rights complaints against officers.
Kirkland and Blair repeatedly implored residents to provide information to officials about homicides and other crimes.
“We are asking the community to look into their own households at their own family members,” said Kirkland. “If you have a family member you think is involved in criminal activity, please. Please. Please. Speak up.”
Police say even if they have a suspect for a crime, they have trouble finding people to testify. Curtis said he was recently approached by a family member of one of the 2017 victims, and he asked her to be a witness.
“Her answer was, ‘It’s not my job, you figure it out.’ But she knows who killed her brother,” he said. “How do I deal with that? How do I get her to open her mouth?
“I don’t know.”
Community forum set
Some blame an “anti-snitching” culture — fear of retribution for working with investigators — for the city’s high number of unsolved slayings. Officials said they do not have their own witness-protection program, but work with other agencies who could provide that protection.
Many of the recent killings were motivated by “revenge,” according to Blair. “Individuals getting out of incarceration who are coming back, trying to re-establish themselves.”
Chester not only has one of the highest homicide rates, but also a low “clearance” rate on closing homicide cases.
Officials said they hope the recent outcry about the deadly violence will lead to more cooperation, and they’re holding a public forum Thursday at 6 p.m. at Chester City Hall to get residents’ feedback.
Blair said he’s willing to take the heat.
“We as a police department, we also have to change our mindset,” he said. “We have to take a long hard look in the mirror and say, ‘What are we doing wrong?’ What can we do to make things better.”