Taking Kensington back from drug dealers, one block at a time

Capt. Charles Vogt of the 24th District has established a police presence on Hartville Street between Indiana and Clearfield in Kensington as part of his Block by Block plan.
Capt. Charles Vogt of the 24th District has established a police presence on Hartville Street between Indiana and Clearfield in Kensington as part of his Block by Block plan. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: August 15, 2012

ON A sweltering August night, Philadelphia Police Officer Bryan Turner, 23, and his partner, Officer Olivia Sutton, 24, patrolled together on foot down the narrow 3000 block of Hartville Street in West Kensington and saw no drug dealing - a miracle because all hell was breaking loose on the blocks around them.

Cops on bikes and in patrol cars sped up and down the surrounding streets, targeting open-air drug trafficking on the corners of Gransback and Indiana, E and Clearfield, F and Clearfield, and Rorer and Indiana.

An illegal ATV thundered down Indiana Avenue at breakneck speed, followed by a dirt bike popping a wheelie and holding it for the length of the block.

As if to underline the Wild West tension, a man suddenly appeared on Indiana near Hartville, riding a skittish horse at full gallop. He saw the cops, reined in the horse just enough to cut around a corner and disappeared.

Amid the mayhem, the peace on the 3000 block of Hartville - between Indiana Avenue and Clearfield Street - seemed like a dream. It wasn't.

It's the first victory for 24th District Capt. Charles Vogt's Block by Block Initiative to take back one West Kensington block from the drug dealers, keep it under police control, partner with the city to provide services to residents and hope that the ripple effect leads to taking back another, then another.

We stay, they move

Vogt, who grew up in Kensington, chose 3000 Hartville in April when two men - one wielding an assault rifle, the other a 9 mm pistol - engaged in an all-out gunbattle on the block.

"This was a big drug corner, 25 guys here every night," said Sutton, standing with Turner at Hartville and Indiana. "They saw us out here night after night for two, three weeks. They realized we weren't leaving. They moved."

"They had little benches, couches, beach furniture out here," Turner said. "They had like their own little park on this corner. All of that's gone."

He and Sutton were sweating under their bulletproof vests. Turner said that when he served in Iraq, the heat hit 120 degrees. "But it was dry heat," he said. "This isn't."

"Our first two weeks here," Sutton said, "the dealers would make anonymous calls to the police, reporting crimes happening somewhere else so we would be called off the corner." Turner and Sutton stayed put.

"Many people on the block are friendly now," Sutton said. "They tell us their landlord-tenant problems, things like that. We try to help."

"You see 25 guys standing on the corner; you don't know what's going to happen," Turner said of his first days there. "You walk down the block with that sinking feeling. Now, there's a feeling of respect."

At 24th District headquarters, Vogt said the "tiny block with huge problems" is in the heart of his GunStat Area - "the most notoriously violent drug-crime streets between Kensington Avenue and C Street from Tioga Street south to Indiana Avenue."

Within 500 feet of the block, police have received 1,266 calls for service and made 202 narcotics arrests since Jan. 1. The 24th District chronically has one of the city's highest homicide rates. Groups of young men with old eyes are everywhere, supplying a seemingly endless product.

Vogt has just one Latino cop - Officer Cynthia Padua - on his force to patrol a predominantly Latino, Spanish-speaking population that generally distrusts police. "They're afraid to call 9-1-1 or to be seen talking to officers in a patrol car," said Vogt, 49. "So how do we build a bridge? It's a very tough sell."

Hope for lasting change

Vogt goes to every community meeting, listens to every complaint about abandoned houses and cars, about trashed vacant lots frequented by dealers and prostitutes. He set up an anonymous tip line - 215-685-3281 - in English and Spanish.

"If we had someone on these streets - a block captain, anyone - talking to us, it would be great," Vogt said. "We have no one."

So he started with one of the worst blocks - 3000 Hartville - and established a steady police presence on foot, on bikes and in patrol cars. He put out the word that the cops would stay for as long as it took to make the street drug-free and safe.

A block captain and another block resident have quietly stepped forward. It's a start.

The beauty of Vogt's initiative is that it's sustainable. Past attempts to clean up drug streets through relentless police presence have collapsed under the crushing cost of overtime. But the cops on 3000 Hartville are pulled from their regular shifts in other parts of the 24th District, so they're working straight time.

"I'm one of these broken-window guys," Vogt said. "I consider myself a small-ball player. Take care of the little things. Win community members over. Quality-of-life arrests are up 73 percent in my district. People are out sitting on their steps again on the 3000 block of Hartville. I saw kids in one of those kiddie pools the other day. I take that as a good sign."

Soon, his police will help staff a two-week kids' soccer camp at Hissy Playground. Vogt plans to do community barbecues and block parties. "If people start seeing us in this light, hopefully they'll trust us more," he said.

To build that grass-roots trust, Vogt is partnering with Joandelis Marquez, who directs the Kensington operations of PhillyRising, the city's program to revitalize Philadelphia's most crime-ridden neighborhoods by working with police to address residents' most urgent needs.

Marquez and her PhillyRising folks recently joined 24th District cops to clean up 3000 Hartville's two vacant lots, the street and the alley that links it to Rorer, which used to be a convenient passage between drug corners.

Vogt, who has commanded the 24th District only since February, is heartened by the positive start.

"Look at what happened in Fishtown," he said hopefully. "I don't see why that can't keep moving north if we show that we can get crime and drug sales under control. Same housing stock. Same access to public transportation. We just have to keep building that bridge with the community."

'Oh, thank God'

Vogt couldn't ask for a more fervent fellow believer than Marquez, 31, who has lived in Kensington most of her life and understands firsthand that drugs destroy families while the kids watch.

Marquez was a teenage mom with two young children when their father died in a motorcycle accident. A couple of years later, she met an older man and "fell in love with him for the way he fell in love with my children." After having a son with him, Marquez discovered he was addicted to heroin.

"He turned into this monster," Marquez said. "He hit me with fists to my face in front of the kids. He said, 'You're never going to leave. I'll kill you.' I felt trapped for six years." On Sept. 4, 2009, "he pins me by my neck on the bed and he's got this big, heavy wrench in his hand. My son heard my screams, hit him with a steel bar and saved my life. We left and never went back."

But she stayed in Kensington. Her parents still live there. Her desire to rid the streets of drug violence is as intense as Vogt's.

"When I got my PhillyRising job in Kensington, I said, 'Oh, thank God,' because it is devastating to me to drive down these streets and see kids coming home from school, rubbing shoulders with men on heroin and with prostitutes," Marquez said.

"Working with Captain Vogt, I'll be on 3000 Hartville regularly with Officer Padua and Community Relations Officer Tina Willis, helping residents understand how to report quality-of-life issues to 3-1-1 and following up on complaints reported to the beat officers to make sure the city is addressing them. This will help build trust between neighbors and police officers."

Come September, Marquez said, AmeriCorps volunteers will spend several weeks working on service projects in Philadelphia. "I've put together a list of vacant lots and alleyways throughout Kensington," Marquez said. "I plan on keeping them extremely busy."

Vogt, who clearly welcomes Marquez's help, said that since June 1, when the initiative went into full swing, the previously violent block has generated no police service calls "except for two sick assists - which is pretty much helping an old lady back into bed."

Vogt smiled. "This is what happens when the cop is on the corner," he said. "Obviously, I wish I had a cop on every corner, but we've got to pick our battles. And we have."


Contact Dan Geringer at 215-854-5961 or geringd@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanGeringer.

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