With 20 homicides in 2017, Chester could surpass recent murder record

     Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland (right) and Police Commissioner Otis Blair speak of measures that can be taken to combat the city's rising murder rate during a press conference on Feb.13, 2017. (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

    Chester Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland (right) and Police Commissioner Otis Blair speak of measures that can be taken to combat the city's rising murder rate during a press conference on Feb.13, 2017. (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

    Since Friday, two people have been shot and killed in the Chester, Pa.  A third, an 11-year-old boy, was struck by a stray bullet but is in stable condition.

    Teshon Malloy, 23, and Shaquan Cruz-Chappell, 28, are only the latest casualties in a the violence-plagued city of 33,000. Less than 20 miles south of Center City Philadelphia, Chester makes frequent appearances near the top of national lists of ranking homicide rates.

    As of August 1, 2016, there were 12 homicides in Chester, according to police chief James Nolan. The same number holds for 2015. So far in 2017, there have been 20 homicides.

    “It seems people have more of a determination to shoot each other, whether it’s more access to weaponry, or less conscience,” he said.

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    Violent crime has risen 11 percent nationwide, after declining for decades — but Chester’s history is unique.

    Against the backdrop of generally high violent crime, the city’s police department has been the target of budget cuts, prompted by chronic budget deficits. In August 2016, a team of state-appointed consultants recommended cutting public safety costs by reducing the number of police officers by 33.

    Residents vocally opposed this recommendation at a public meeting. Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland and the Chester City Council later approved a plan that allowed for cutting only 10. 

    Now, Nolan said the department is working with fewer officers after a rash of retirements — 85 instead of the 106 it budgeted for.

    Clusters of shootings have dotted the calendar — including several during National Gun Violence Awareness Day – drawing the attention of local officials. In May, Delaware County ponied up $100,000 to bring in the Pennsylvania State Police — adding extra manpower for patrols through the fall.

    The grant is a part of a collaboration Chester Police, the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office, Delaware County Probation and Parole, Delaware County Sheriff’s Office, the Pennsylvania State Police, and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

    Official statements at the time heralded the partnership as a “surge of law enforcement agencies in the streets of Chester will be a force multiplier to local police in their efforts to quell violence, protect residents and apprehend criminals,” according to official statements. DA Jack Whelan also began offering $2,500 per tip that leads to an arrest and conviction for illegal firearm charges.

    Since that announcement, there have been 10 more homicides in Chester.

    But in a city where many speak of gun violence in resigned tones, at least one former official said he does not expect a quick downturn in crime — even with more officers on patrol.

    “It’s typically cyclical,” said former Chester Mayor John Linder. “The territorial disputes that go on in the summertime can tend to get really out of hand.”

    Linder held office in 2014, a year when the city saw 30 homicides, the highest number in the last decade. State police pitched in that year as well.000000000001-Screen Shot 2017-07-24 at 4.14.07 PM

    If the current pace continues, the city could surpass 30 homicides in 2017. A refrain among law enforcement is that they operate in a double bind – residents don’t cooperate with police because they are afraid of retaliation. With no fear of punishment, said Nolan, violent offenders continue to commit crimes.

    For the 20 homicides so far in 2017, police have made three arrests. Awards for information related to a homicide conviction now top $10,000, but have no takers.

    With that in mind, Nolan said the department is also focusing on recovering illegal firearms as a way to prevent violence. Police have collected more than 80 in 2017 – although there’s no way to know how many crimes that could prevent.

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