A brave face on crime, not that it matters

by pkerkstra on February 1, 2012

This column appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on January 31, 2012.

In 2007, on the night he was elected mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter began his acceptance speech with a moment of silence for Police Officer Chuck Cassidy, who had been killed a week earlier at an Oak Lane doughnut shop after walking into a robbery in progress.

Nutter let the silence stretch for a good, long while. Then he said: “It’s a new day. It’s a new day. It’s a new day. It’s a new day.”

Those were the words the city needed to hear. Though the final death toll that year wasn’t as apocalyptic as feared, for much of 2007, Philadelphia felt like a metropolis on the brink. Former Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson kept telling anyone who asked that, really, there wasn’t much the cops could do to stop the killings. “It’s impossible to solve a problem we did not create,” he said on one occasion.

Nutter’s “new day” was about rejecting that defeatism.

He’d bring in a new commissioner with a fantastic record, Charles Ramsey, and together they’d modernize the force, deploy cops in a way that actually made sense, knit together a vast network of surveillance cameras, and more. Why wouldn’t their plans work? New York had done it. So, too, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami.

For a while, Philadelphia looked as though it would join those cities’ ranks. Homicides declined 15 percent Nutter’s first year in office, and they fell further still in 2009. But then the drop-off stalled, and then it reversed, and not for the first time. In Philadelphia, relatively good years – like 1999, 2002, or 2009 – are often followed by periods of inexplicable mayhem.

Indeed, as The Inquirer calculated this month, about as many murders happened in Nutter’s first term as in Street’s. All that effort, all that attention, and still as many dead bodies.

And now a bizarrely bloody January. Already, 32 people are dead, and that figure could be outdated by the time this column is published. The numbers on their own are bad enough – worse than any January in at least the last five years – but it is the random nature of the violence, the targeting of innocents, that has unsettled the city, just as it did in 2007.

Back then, we could tell ourselves that Johnson was beat, ground down after years of service. Same for Mayor Street; he’d taken his big $100 million swing at violent crime with Safe Streets in 2002, and seemed to agree with Johnson that there was only so much the city could do.

What do we tell ourselves now? Ramsey is an outstanding commissioner. Nutter is completely focused on crime. And yet their efforts, and those of the entire force, seem no match for a few balmy winter weekends.

But crime and fear of crime are as much about public perception as statistics, so Nutter knows better than to let even a shadow of discouragement cross his face. Far better to show anger (“don’t act like idiots and assholes”) and resolve (“I just put a $20,000 bounty on your head”) than the toxic resignation that pervaded City Hall and the Roundhouse in 2007.

Last week, Nutter, Ramsey, District Attorney Seth Williams, and about every other senior law enforcement official in this half of Pennsylvania (including the feds) showed up for the rollout of the mayor’s new crime initiative.

The plan had nine elements, including stricter sentencing for possession of illegal guns (which is really up to the courts, not the cops or D.A.), rewards for turning in murderers, a texting tip line, and a stepped-up patrol presence through overtime and a few new recruiting classes.

The event had the feel of something put together on the fly, a hodgepodge of ideas rolled out as a response to some awful violence. Not so, administration officials say. The plan has been in the works since the flash mobs of last summer; only the public unveiling was rushed.

The theme that knits the plan together, the administration says, is that it asks Philadelphians to do more.

“A lot of this stuff tries to give the community a little bit more power. We’re asking them to step up and not be afraid,” said Everett Gillison, Nutter’s chief of staff and deputy mayor for public safety. “I know people say bad things sometimes happen when you stand up. Well, if you lay down, you’re dead already.”

At the crime plan rollout, held at Strawberry Mansion High, Williams observed that “there are far too many street corners all across the city littered with teddy bears and balloons and candles for lives that were lost too soon.”

As I got into my car to go home, there to my left was one of the very shrines Williams had described, not a block from the school. The stoop was covered in stuffed animals and other tributes: an Elmo, a SpongeBob, a Joe Montana jersey. “RIP Joey,” said one of dozens of messages scrawled on the painted yellow brick facing the rowhouse. “Gone but never forgotten. Fallen Soldier.”


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