Yesterday I related the dispiriting story of a man slugged twice and left bleeding by a stranger, who was then pretty much ignored by the Philadelphia police even though he gave them the assailant’s license plate number.
Many of you who’ve lived in the city for years have your own experiences to share about police apathy. I remember the time my house was broken into, and when I called the detective on the case the next day with the phone number of the guy who had my wife’s stolen beeper, he wasn’t interested.
Daily News columnist Ronnie Polaneczky had this story a couple of weeks ago, about a $1,200 theft detectives wouldn’t move on.
I’ve known a bunch of great Philadelphia cops over the years, but I’ve long thought there are some serious management issues with the department. And there’s the problem of resources. An understaffed police force can’t do what it wants, even if it is well-run.
And of course it would help if there were better technology and cops had station houses that weren’t depressing and dilapidated.
All that said, I have to say what a contrast to Philly it was when my son and his roommate got their computers stolen in New York last year.
They were moving out of a fourth-floor walk-up apartment, and when they made their last trip up from the moving van, they found their laptops gone, with lots of precious data on board.
They figured the thief was somebody in the building who’d watched them move. They post a note in the neighborhood – one of those `$500 reward, no questions asked’ things. Soon my son’s cell phone rings, and a guy instructs him to come with the cash in a taxi to a nearby address, and someone would come out to the cab with the goods.
But first, my son and his buddy decide to stop by the local police precinct to see if they might help. They walk up to the front desk, explain their situation and soon find themselves upstairs, across the desk from a detective who tells them, `no, you’re not going to get your computers back, we are.’
The cops go the appointed place, as instructed, in a cab. But the dudes with the computers don’t come out. They’re watching from a window, and know what my son and his roomate look like. They call him and ask why he sent cops.
At this point, the police have the seller’s phone number from my son’s cell phone and the address, plenty enough information to scan databases and discover somebody with a criminal record is on the other end of the transaction.
They have probable cause, they go to the address, and ka-boom, the perp is in cuffs and my son and his buddy get their computers back.
Imagine what would happen if two young guys walked into a Philadelphia Police station asking somebody to investigate their stolen computers.
I know a couple of anecdotes don’t tell the whole story, and New York’s had its problems with police misconduct. But the murder rate in New York has gone down and stayed down for a long time now, and people who live there say they feel safer.
A part of the New York story that’s often forgotten is that the police turnaround there began the early 90’s when then Mayor David Dinkins raised taxes – that’s right, raised taxes – to add another 3,000 officers to the police force over six years.
Better management helped them make use of the extra bodies, but it took a commitment of money to start the turnaround.
I’ve seen more than one police reform effort in Philadelphia lose steam. More than one observer has suggested that the city’s civil service protections, the state’s labor laws, and fact that all the cops up to the rank of inspector belong to the same union make discipline all but impossible.
I’m interested in hearing from Philadelphia police officers about whether they think cops are held accountable, whether commanders really try to get the job done, and whether the department does what it can with the resources it has.
It isn’t just the murder rate that defines police work.