Northwood taking the law into its own hands?

Harry Mearing (left) chats with John Klak, one of many residents who pay him to patrol in Northwood. (Yong Kim/Staff) YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Harry Mearing (left) chats with John Klak, one of many residents who pay him to patrol in Northwood. (Yong Kim/Staff) YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: August 10, 2012

Meet Harry Mearing. He has handcuffs, a handgun and a uniform. He patrols Northwood, a neighborhood in the Frankford section of the the lower Northeast. But he's no city cop.

He's Northwood's very own armed security patrolman, possibly the first in a Philadelphia residential area. Each homeowner that seeks his protection pays Mearing $40 a month to look after a home and keep an eye out for suspicious activity.

Mearing is part of a national trend as neighborhoods across the country have hired private guards in the face of budget cuts to local police departments.

"I don't enforce vehicle code; I don't write tickets; I don't do arrests. I can detain, but only in certain situations," Mearing said. "This is more of an observe-and-report. [I] see something go down and immediately call 9-1-1."

Northwood residents sing the guard's praises. They complain that the Police Department is slow to — and in some cases fails to — respond when called. But the neighborhood's police captain and local leaders, six months after the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watchman in Sanford, Fla., are uncomfortable with Northwood's private guard.

"Any time you have an armed security guard working with the public, you just don't know what can happen," said Capt. Frank Bachmayer of the 15th Police District. "It's definitely a concern."

The district — which covers Tacony, Mayfair, Holmesburg, Frankford and Bridesburg — is the city's busiest, with 248,871 dispatched calls in 2011.

Bachmayer said that arrests for quality-of-life offenses have risen and that officers are responding to low-level crime, but Northwood resident John Graves, 43, would surely disagree.

Graves moved to the neighborhood from Bucks County five years ago. His two-story brick house has been burglarized three times and a bike was stolen from his garage.

"You call 9-1-1, they say they will dispatch an officer from the 15th [Police District] and [one time] nobody showed up," he said.

Graves said several neighbors also experienced break-ins at their homes in recent months.

"We have to do what we have to do to make sure we're secure," Graves said. "I need someone every day patrolling this neighborhood, making sure it's safe, and if [the police] can't do it, we have to find someone who can."

Graves estimates that burglars have taken thousands of dollars' worth of valuables from his home over the years — including his wedding ring, his wife's great-grandmother's silverware, old coins and his son's Nintendo Wii video-game system.

Since then, Graves has installed an alarm system, gotten an especially intimidating Great Dane and paid Mearing. Graves said he had considered moving, but he has good neighbors and just wants to protect his castle.

City Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, whose district includes Northwood, says she understands the neighborhood's concerns, but is uneasy about a potential worst-case scenario.

"While I understand the 15th Police District is a very active district, there's always been a level of concern about the presence of police in the Northwood community," Sanchez said. "The last thing I want to encourage is any kind of vigilante-style policing, particularly someone who is carrying a gun and who is going to make judgment calls about what's going on," said Sanchez. "I would be concerned for anybody, given the Trayvon Martin situation, anybody who could potentially be following people around because they look suspicious, particularly someone who may not be trained."

Riding with Harry

The pleasant, mild-mannered guard, decked out in a black uniform with an American-flag emblem on his right shoulder, sat behind the wheel of his black 2010 Dodge Avenger cruising down Northwood Street near Arrott one recent Friday evening toward a black Crown Victoria. Before Mearing could reach the vehicle, the driver sped off, quickly fading into the night.

"That's all it takes," Mearing said. "You passing by slowly, brake lights, and they think, ‘Oh, he's going to come back around.'"

Mearing said the driver was likely one of the many johns who park on dark, deserted streets or in the shadows of the Oakland Cemetery to have sex with prostitutes.

"Northwood encounters soft crime like vandalism, theft, prostitution," said Frank Bennett, Mearing's cousin and vice president of the Northwood Civic Association, which sought to hire a guard following concerns from neighbors. "The softer crime can lead to higher crime. Security is the Number One thing for each homeowner."

Mearing, 42, of South Philly, has been patrolling Northwood since July 1. He isn't your average neighborhood watchman. He says he has 20 years of experience in law enforcement — including seven years with the Berks County Fire Police dealing with traffic control, five years with AlliedBarton security services, and as a personal guard for bigwigs at global companies and Disney celebrities including Emily Osment.

Mearing has lethal-weapons certification and has completed much of the same training as Philadelphia police officers. His startup business is covered by Costanza, a security-insurance company that provides him with up to $1 million in liability insurance.

Mearing is aiming to get 200 clients, which would bring in $96,000 a year. At that point, he said, he might be able to hire another officer.

Currently it's a one-man show. Mearing works seven days a week, 12 hours a day. He pays $150 per week for gas, and said that at the moment he isn't making a profit from the gig.

But he said that none of that matters.

"Law enforcement was very interesting to me," he said. "It's my calling … I could make a difference."

No more Trayvons

Bennett stressed that Mearing's job is to monitor, conduct drive-bys of clients' properties, check for signs of break-ins like broken glass or partly open windows, and call 9-1-1 if he sees something. Mearing's gun is for his own protection, Bennett says.

Mearing said that he would get out of his car only if he or someone else is in a life-threatening situation.

"We don't want any intervention or any concerns like the one in Florida," Bennett said. Sanford, Fla., neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman "deemed himself a vigilante without training, certificates …he deemed himself quasi-cop. Our goal is to avoid that."

Zimmerman faces second-degree murder charges in the shooting death of the unarmed Martin in February.

Police spokesman Lt. Ray Evers said he is not aware of any other neighborhood hiring private armed guards.

This is new territory, and the Police Department cannot stop the community from hiring a private guard, he said, adding that Mearing isn't unlike guards who patrol business districts.

"We don't just have someone who has a gun permit. It's a little different," Evers said. "I think the concerns are fair. It's something new."

Robert Stokes, an associate professor at Drexel University who has studied private security in public places, said the city will have to figure out how to deal with the possibility that more of Philly's residential neighborhoods will follow in Northwood's footsteps.

"Northwood is sending a political message to the city," he said. " ‘We're taxpayers and we want better services.' "  

Contact Jan Ransom at 215-854-5218 or Ransomj@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Jan_Ransom. Read her blog phillyclout.com.

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