In the wake of the recent goodbye to 39th Police District Captain Stephen Glenn, at least one of the attendees of a community meeting Tuesday night at Philadelphia University hoped to meet new 39th Captain Verdell Johnson, but he was not in attendance.
Instead, Lieutenant Edward Bier of the District’s Police Service Area (PSA) 1 was in attendance, along with Community Engagement Program Coordinator Kathy Cruz, to answer questions from about thirty residents of Germantown and East Falls concerned about rising crime in the area.
First, Cruz acquainted attendees with the progress of the city’s Neighborhood Liaison Program, promoting the use of Philadelphia’s 311 number (having just received its four millionth call after launching about four years ago) for non-emergency situations that require the assistance of city agencies.
Designed to free up the 911 line from non-critical communications, the 311 line is available to residents who need directory assistance for city agencies, information on city events, or who need to register complaints with branches such as the Water Department, the Streets Department, or the PPA. Via the 311 calls, the Neighborhood Liaison Program, which is currently seeking out volunteer Neighborhood Liaisons to help collect neighborhood concerns, works to connect residents to help from appropriate city departments.
A frustrated crowd ready for change
But situations warranting 911 calls were the prime concern of gathered residents, who included East Falls Town Watch members and EFTW President Mary Jane Fullam, as well as Nicole Tomassi of Germantown, who is working to organize a Town Watch in her own neighborhood. Amid rumors that the East Falls neighborhood’s regularly scheduled pair of beat cops will be reduced to one officer under Captain Johnson, residents pointed sharply to an apparent rise in local crimes, including burglaries, thefts from cars, assault and armed robberies, and sought answers from Lt. Bier.
One Midvale Avenue man alluded to a “rash of attempted burglaries” over the past two weeks, including the recent theft of a GPS device from his wife’s car, parked in the driveway behind their house.
Lt. Bier drew the ire of frustrated attendees with some pragmatic advice, confirming that the speaker’s GPS unit’s mounting ring had been left visible overnight on the car’s windshield.
“The reality is that most [thefts] happen because people leave things in plain view,” Lt. Bier said, emphasizing the citizen’s role in preventing crime through personal vigilance.
While Lt. Bier could not confirm the number of beat cops that would remain on duty in East Falls, or commit to any promises about their duties, he mentioned the training of several new bike cops whose mobility could aid a general police presence.
“I’m sure everybody here would like a cop on their block,” he said. But due to budget and staffing constraints, “it’s not gonna happen.”
Addressing illegal driving, drug dealing and gun violence
Other issues raised included ongoing problems with enforcement on East Falls’ notorious one-way Calumet Bridge – motorists often ignore installed signage to illegally use the bridge as a two-way street. A resident of the troubled corner at Calumet and Skidoo streets insisted that police presence to deter the dangerous maneuver has dropped in recent months. Lt. Bier agreed that the late 19th-century bridge is a problem, calling the Skidoo/Calumet intersection “a real mess”.
Still other residents were concerned with rampant evidence of local drug dealing. “What do we have to do to get rid of the drug dealers?” one exasperated attendee asked.
“That’s a good question,” Lt. Bier replied, insisting that though residents might be concerned with an apparent rise in drug-related activity on their corner, the problem was not unique to any block. Other complaints involved late-night noise and underage drinking problems due to the rampant partying of Philadelphia University students who rent housing on Calumet Street.
“I’m not unaccustomed to hearing gun shots,” said another attendee, citing an audible rise in local gun violence. Others spoke up about finding shell casings in local streets and gardens (Lt. Bier urged anyone who finds gun casings to call the police). A fiery resident of West Queen Lane shared a February incident in which he and his fiancée were attacked in a parking lot by “punks” throwing rocks and bottles.
Lt. Bier confirmed that the last month in PSA 1 has seen an uptick in certain crimes, especially thefts from vehicles. He had several pieces of advice for concerned citizens.
Anyone who hears or witnesses any type of crime should immediately call 911 (training with Town Watch groups can help concerned civilians recognize suspicious activity and report with maximum effectiveness to 911 dispatchers). Lt. Bier urged residents not to personally confront apparent dealers, thieves or trespassers, who may be armed, but to call 911 with a full description of the scene. When regular avenues for addressing crime problems fail, he recommended contacting the relevant City Council members for political action.
‘You can’t be an army of one’
Savvy denizens urged their neighbors to consistently report illegal activity via 911 calls, including car tag numbers, personal descriptions, locations and times: “you’ve got to make those calls. This is the only way anything got done.”
“We need attention,” exclaimed one attendee, citing a perceived tendency by the Police Department to focus officers and resources on neighborhoods that traditionally suffer higher crime than PSA 1. Lt. Bier assured listeners that any calls describing a serious crime, such as illegal gunshots, draw immediate priority treatment from on-duty officers regardless of neighborhood.
If the problem of burgeoning crime is not dealt with, “you’ll see this neighborhood empty out very quickly,” the speaker continued, vehemently warning that a flight from the neighborhood would result in further reduction of resources.
Other residents take a more active and optimistic view. Fullam is looking for more East Falls Town Watch volunteers and urges those interested to contact her at 215-848-2033.
“All we’re doing is being a presence,” she explained of the effectiveness of unified local citizens.
“You can’t be an army of one,” Lt. Bier agreed.
The man who suffered an assault with his fiancée agreed that local crime is not an insurmountable problem if citizens will stand up against it. “I’m not going to be run out of Germantown by these knuckleheads,” he said.