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Crime Blocks: A Guide to Stubborn Crime in Riverwards (Part One: The New Sheriff in Town)

Welcome to Crime Blocks, The Spirit’s primer on the areas in the Riverwards that are most burdened by crime, and what is being done to improve them.

The city of Philadelphia keeps data on where and when every crime is reported. The key word here is “reported.” Truth is, not every dope-deal-gone-bad or armed robbery results in a 911 call. Some victims may be too scared to call or may be embarrassed to admit what they were doing when the crime went down. Other times, someone calls but thinks better of it and rolls before the police arrive. That gets labeled as “unfounded” by police. But to residents and local business owners “unfounded” doesn’t mean “didn’t happen.”

In this ongoing series, we’ll take a closer look at the areas in our neighborhoods that are encumbered with the highest volume of persistent, stubborn and unreported crime. Despite a love for our neighborhoods, crime is a reality of our communities, and progress can only be made through conversations about these issues. We’ll talk to the police, area leaders and the stakeholders. We’ll ask, “What is the problem?” “Where is the problem?” “What is being done about it?” “What else can be done about it?”

Police Officers

/Max Pulcini

One of the people cataloging the problems facing some of these troubled areas is Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez. The recently re-elected Quinones-Sanchez hails from the 7th District, which includes areas in Frankford, Juniata, and part of The Spirit’s coverage area in Kensington.

While she was always aware of the crime in her district, her office relocation to Howard and Dauphin in Kensington was a real eye opener. She moved to her new office in the winter and few people in the area noticed her presence right away.

“I had an opportunity to sit at the window and watch some stuff and it was very, very concerning,” Sanchez said. “In the morning, I had seniors and other folks coming and selling their pills to the drug dealers and then in the afternoon, the drug dealers selling them to their clients.”

She noticed that some of the dealers were “third generation” dealers coming from a “family of drugs.”

She cites addiction as the underlying problem and said, “We can’t arrest our way out of it.” Nor does she like the strategy of containment, which is just making sure the problem doesn’t spread out of a three to four block area.

“That’s no longer acceptable to me,” Sanchez said. “There are innocent people caught up in [those areas].”

Some neighbors give her tips in a variety of ways.

“We get [information] all the time,” Sanchez said, adding that they come in the form of Facebook inbox messages, emails, calls and many other ways, often anonymously.

She shares this info with the district captains in the East division. But now she may have a new ally: the new sheriff in town

Crime Scene

/Max Pulcini

Well, he’s not actually a sheriff. Philly doesn’t work that way. He’s the new Chief Inspector of Narcotics and his name is Dan MacDonald.

One of MacDonald’s first actions in the Riverwards was to go after the dealers and buyers around A and Somerset. The Narcotics unit operated a multi-day, multi-departmental unit raid that The Spirit reported first. The arrest totals were good but not spectacular. That doesn’t bother him though.

“It’s not about numbers,” MacDonald said. “It’s about taking back an area.”

MacDonald sat at his desk at the Narcotics Unit’s new digs in East Falls. Fittingly, the building formerly served as a U.S. Army Reserve center and he is a soldier. A tall, neatly-stacked set of papers loomed in front of him. The rest of the desk was busy, but not cluttered.

In addition to his decades of experience with law enforcement in Philly, he’s also been on three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan with the U.S. Army. He wants to bring some military ideas to Philly’s narcotics enforcement. Gulp. Wait, we’ve seen this on TV. The militarization of the police doesn’t go well.

Not so fast. MacDonald acknowledges that the police design is to protect, the military to destroy.

“Operation tactics don’t crossover,” he explained. What does crossover is “decision-making, strategy and review.”

In fact, what he wants to bring to policing is actually what policing brought to the military. If you’re familiar with David Petraeus’ “Clear, hold and build” strategy, then you will understand MacDonald’s philosophy.

He described the raid in the ‘hood at A and Somerset as “hit it, hit it again and hit it again.” The key to the impact didn’t lie in the raids themselves, or the “clear” as Petraeus would call it. But rather, it was MacDonald’s coordination with the uniformed district police officers to put heavy patrols in the area to “hold” immediately after each raid. The “build” aspect comes later with community involvement.

Some may see the back-to-back-to-back hits and note the diminishing returns. MacDonald sees it as changing the way the neighborhood is viewed.

“Take Langhorne or Warminster (towns in Bucks County, Pa), do you hear about a lot of robberies [and other crimes] in those places?” MacDonald asked. “No. Because the perception is if you get caught, you go to jail forever. Now, perception is not reality, but it’s important in criminality.”

Closer to home, MacDonald recalled making heroin arrests in Fishtown 15 years ago on the 400 block of George Street. He notes that the neighborhood has drastically improved since that time. Over the last ten years, property sales average close to $300,000 on George Street, according to data from Philly’s Office of Property Assessment. In the years before, MacDonald cites, the average sale price was a tick above $42,000.

The drug busts and “gentrification compliment one another, but neither work alone,” MacDonald said.

Looking at the pile of papers in front of him, which are complaints and tips from the public, he asks, “You see this? This is just from yesterday.”

Narcotics receives “hundreds of complaints a day” from across the city. The tips are vital for the Narcotics Unit’s effectiveness.

When it comes to what’s going on, “the community has the most knowledge,” MacDonald said.

“I read 200 pages a day, my inspector reads 200 pages a day,” he said. “I now have an integrity officer looking at every document.”

Narcotics Roundup

/Bob Stewart

He also altered and increased the paperwork for the officers. Cops are known to resist change; MacDonald understands there will be a transition period but said it has to get done.

Unfortunately for MacDonald, convincing field officers to do the paperwork differently may be the easy part. He must also restore confidence and trust in the unit after the bad publicity of a federal corruption case. While all six former members of the squad were acquitted, it’ll be an uphill battle to improve the unit’s image in the eyes of the community.

“Less people will give us tips … juries are less likely to believe officers,” MacDonald explained.

Sanchez agrees with MacDonald. Her district encompasses a big chunk of the Riverwards and she bridges not only a language barrier but a trust gap with police and other officials. She said the recent news, particularly the federal narcotics case, has created “skeptics” in the community.

One solution once again comes from the military: information operations. In the Riverwards, this takes place at local civic and community meetings, so be sure to look out for MacDonald’s people there. They’ll be there to answer questions. He’ll also be coordinating with the district police. Cops like Sgt. John Massi of the 26th district are ready. Massi has blocks where PCP sales and shootings are happening in Kensington as well as blocks that are physically hard to patrol with cars.

The fact of the matter is, crime happens no matter which neighborhood you live in. And it’s not just drugs and violence, it’s theft, fraud, and a range of other offenses. There are badlands in the shadows of schools and problematic “dirty horseshoe” blocks — like one in the heart of Fishtown, just a stones throw away from big money development projects and properties. These areas are also filled with families, business owners and public servants working to make their communities clean, safe and successful. We’ll map these streets out, along with their individual issues, and talk to the people who are organizing and mobilizing to take back their blocks.

If there’s a block in your neighborhood that you want us to look into, send us tip at news@spiritnews.org. 

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