Worries about becoming ‘a throwaway neighborhood’ arise at Germantown crime meeting

From earlier encounters, Executive Assistant United States Attorney Robert Reed recognized the neighborhoods through which he traveled on his way to the meeting.

Trailing Eighth District Councilwoman Cindy Bass’s car from Thomas Pierce Elementary School in North Philadelphia to First Presbyterian Church in Germantown on Tuesday night, Reed performed a sort of windshield survey of the streets he passed.

It brought back memories and images of crimes that he labeled “horrendous.”

At the same time, there were positives: Beautiful people, beautiful homes and positive things occurring.

“We’ve got to do a better job of making this place a much more peaceful place by working together,” Reed told the residents and city officials in attendance upon arrival.

Keeping residents in the loop

Bass hosted a well-attended “Crime and Safety Update” in Germantown to address constituents’ concerns about what is — and what some believed isn’t — being done about crime, particularly violent crime, that persists in areas of her district.

“The question is, ‘How can we get in front of so many of the things that are happening and be proactive about what happens in our communities?'” she said.

Telling the residents what could and couldn’t be done from a police perspective were Capt. Joel Dales, commanding officer of the 14th District, which encompasses Mt. Airy, Chestnut Hill and sections of Germantown and Capt. Verdell Johnson, commanding officer of the 39th District, which encompasses East Falls and segments of North Philadelphia and Germantown.

Also present were Reed and Matthew Connolly, Northwest Division assistant bureau chief for the District Attorney’s office.

Cooperation and clearance rates

Johnson reiterated that arrests for violent crimes have dropped considerably, but that the Northwest Detective Division’s clearance rate for shootings is 20 percent.

Underscoring the lack of cooperation from victims and neighbors, he referenced a shooting that occurred on Sunday night near the Wayne Junction SEPTA station in which 29 shots were fired, one hitting a man who claimed not to know his attackers.

Robberies also continue to be a concern in the 39th, with cell phones being taken regularly, some at gunpoint. In fact, an iPhone heist in East Falls, allegedly at knifepoint, preceded the meeting by little more than an hour.

Dales said that his command has seen 18 homicides to date, in which nine arrests have been made, slightly better than an approximate city homicide clearance rate of 40 percent

In 2011, there were 28 homicides in the 14th District. While Dales said that arrest rates for burglaries in his district were “sky high,” he asked for those present to employ common sense in preventing property crimes.

Lively, but respectful discussion

What ensued was a lively but respectful question-and-answer period. Topics ranged from homicides to quality-of-life concerns.

Lisa Hopkins, a community organizer with Northwest Neighbors of Germantown, inquired about how police respond to tips about drug activity. Johnson replied that the information is forwarded to the relevant district captain and the city-wide Narcotics Unit, which perform surveillance, make buys and obtain warrants.

To questions about gun-law enforcement, Dales explained that district captains meet with district attorneys on a quarterly basis to talk about gun offenders.

“They take it very seriously,” he said, referencing a recent quadruple arrest in the area around Finley Playground, wherein the “neighborhood hit man” was picked up.

Hopkins, who launched an email campaign lobbying residents to attend, also asked about staffing levels in patrol districts.

Johnson said the PPD’s staffing levels have started to decrease, and that the current police academy classes are smaller than hoped for. Given the increase in activity that Johnson cited in the 39th, he hopes to see more officers assigned to his command.

How to address loitering

Daniel Conner, an attorney practicing on the 5000 block of Germantown Ave., asked about strategic efforts to reduce crime. Tactically speaking, Conner wanted to know about what could be done to keep young men off of street corners.

Dales responded, “We strategize every day,” and listed recent deployments of bicycle patrols which directly resulted in drug arrests.

As for the corners, he said police couldn’t “babysit” the denizens, but it’s not for lack of trying.

“I’m out there myself, personally,” he said. “I chase these guys around, but I also talk to them. I ask them if they have a job.”

Other concerns

Terry Trudeau, a resident of Pulaski Street, wanted to know what could be done to secure a “drug free zone” at nearby John B. Kelly School.

“It’s coming,” said Johnson, noting that he’s been in touch with the district attorney’s office about those enhanced-penalty options.

Maxine Brown of Fernhill expressed frustration about adjacent houses that were either vacant or shelter for people engaged in criminal activities.

After making the rounds of various city agencies, little has been done. “When I make all the right moves, and nothing happens,” she asked, “what else can I do?”

Johnson and Bass staffers both asked to speak with Brown privately about her concerns.

Robert Kirby of Germantown wanted to know about school safety, as with the closures of various schools throughout the city, students are now placed in schools where, due to neighborhood rivalries, they are often getting in fights.

Dales replied that he speaks with principals at least once a week, has roving police officers visiting the schools to assist dedicated school police and also monitors Twitter and Facebook to gain additional information.

Anonymity requested

The last person to speak, a woman from Southwest Germantown who asked to have her name withheld, remained adamant about the poor state of policing in Philadelphia, despite the various assurances she heard Tuesday.

Her request was specific: End open-air drug markets.

“At least have it be a goal,” she exhorted. “There are a series of laws that are not being pursued in Germantown. It’s like it’s a throwaway neighborhood.

“There were 10 guys standing on my corner this afternoon that I’ve complained about 100 times. How long would this stand in Bryn Mawr?” she continued. “It would not stand. They would not allow it for five minutes.”

Johnson replied that based on information obtained in her neighborhood, four drugs arrests were recently made, three for buying, one for dealing.

“We’re out there,” he said. “We can’t be out there 24/7. It’s just not going to happen.”

Bass expressed sympathy for police and residents, observing a reality about the drug trade.

“What happens is, we lock those guys up, and someone replaces them the next day,” she said. “It goes on and on and on.”

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