Targeting South Philly's top criminals

Police Officer Matt York looks up a man's criminal history on a mobile data terminal in a cruiser while on patrol with Officer Anthony Mergiotti. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Police Officer Matt York looks up a man's criminal history on a mobile data terminal in a cruiser while on patrol with Officer Anthony Mergiotti. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Posted: November 04, 2013

The young men had been summoned to the ornate room in City Hall because police had determined that they were the ones most likely to shoot or be shot.

After months of intelligence huddles, police and prosecutors had identified the 45 South Philadelphia corner boys who shuffled into the courtroom that spring morning as "impact players" - possible triggermen - in violent street crews.

Flanking the lectern were neighbors, outreach workers, and city and federal law enforcement officials, including Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey and District Attorney Seth Williams.

They had rehearsed their message as part of a new strategy they call Focused Deterrence, which combats gang gun violence through outreach and targeted enforcement.

They did not want them to die, they told the group. They did not want to send them to jail. They wanted to help.

But if the men or any of their friends squeezed a trigger, their entire crew would experience the weight of the law like never before. The whole group would pay. No matter who pulled the trigger.

Cops would swarm, they were warned. And there would be stiffer jail sentences, higher bails, the revisiting of stalled cases, stricter probation, and parole enforcement, and even crackdowns on child-support failings, welfare fraud, and utility thefts.

From now on, after a shooting, Peco would inspect gang members' homes. If they were stealing electricity, their lights would be shut off.

The crew members and their friends were now at the top of everybody's list, Ramsey said. First in line for job training and other support services, but also squarely in the sights of law enforcement.

This was not a negotiation, he said. The shootings had to stop.

These were not empty threats.

Six months after that April meeting - or "call-in" - authorities are touting the targeted enforcement as contributing to significant reductions in shootings and homicides in South Division, where the effort was rolled out.

While shootings and homicides are down throughout the city, the drop in South Philadelphia is striking.

Compared with last year, shootings in South Philadelphia are down 43 percent, falling to 22 since the start of Focused Deterrence from 39 for the same period of 2012, police statistics show. Homicides were cut in half - from 15 to seven.

Moreover, police say they have used the program to crush long-standing street crews.

By targeting shooters and their associates, the strategy recognizes that a small number of offenders are responsible for the majority of violence.

Since most are members of some crew or gang, police must attack the group dynamic to stop the bloodshed. And just as the threat of arrest must be real, the community must provide an off-ramp to gang members through jobs, counseling, and other support.

It has worked elsewhere.

"The virtue is that it's effective," said criminologist David Kennedy of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the architect of the model known as Ceasefire in other cities.

"The drawback," Kennedy said, "is that it's complicated and requires high levels of commitment from many different partners, including social service, law enforcement, and community outreach."

Kennedy, who grew up in Detroit and studied philosophy at Swarthmore, honed the strategy as a Harvard academic working with Boston police in the 1990s. It was credited with halving the murder rate there - the "Boston Miracle" - and had similar success in other cities.

Philadelphia's efforts grew out of a desire by police and prosecutors to complement the city's GunStat initiative, which uses crime statistics to identify hot spots and prosecute gun criminals.

"We realized we were doing a good job of identifying the hot spots and the offenders, but we needed an offense," said Bryan Lentz, former chief of the Gun Violence Task Force in the District Attorney's Office. "We were fishing instead of hunting."

First Assistant District Attorney Edward McCann seized on Kennedy's model in the spring after reading a book Kennedy wrote about it. In it, McCann said, he saw an understanding of the causes of urban violence that any veteran Philadelphia prosecutor could attest to: Most shootings and killings are the result of senseless street beefs.

"It just seemed to me, this should work here," he said.

McCann and Lentz took the idea to police, who said the effort would work well with the department's shift toward more focused, data-driven policing.

Kennedy's model offered a targeted approach that still respected the community, Deputy Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel said.

"This is not a stop and frisk, grab anybody, check them out to see if they got a gun thing," Bethel said. "We're going after the right guys. These are the guys driving the violence."

South Division provided a natural fit for the strategy, said Bethel, a former district commander in South Philadelphia.

It's a tightly contained - and tightly knit - area with about two dozen street crews with easily defined territories.

And South Division already had the best gang intelligence.

One detective's work in particular offered a building block, police said.

For years, Anthony Vega had been keeping a list of gang members with more than 800 names.

Using the list as a starting point, police and prosecutors, joined by the FBI, the ATF, and the probation department, hashed over every bit of gang intelligence.

What is the name of the group? What is its territory? Who are the people involved? What are their alliances? Do they sell drugs? What kinds of drugs? Are they moderately violent or really violent?

They pored over arrest and probation records, intelligence reports, and social-media sites to identify the impact players, said Assistant District Attorney Caroline Keating McGlynn, the chief prosecutor for South Division.

"We went through every single group with a fine-tooth comb," she said.

While police culled the list down to 600, Keri Salerno of the city managing director's office worked to build a coalition of social-services partners.

They had $150,000 from the city for social services and job training.

"If you're going to have this two-pronged approach where you offer sanctions if they don't behave, and priority for social services if they do, it better be real," Lentz said.

If April's initial City Hall call-in was a promise of action, then the next one a month later offered proof.

McGlynn told the second group what happened to those who didn't listen the first time around.

Four days after the first call-in, a member of the 16th and Manton crew - known as M-16 - exchanged shots with a rival.

The Focused Deterrence team began an enforcement.

"M-16 got a little nervous," McGlynn said.

Police flooded every corner, block, and bar where M-16 hung out. Probation stepped up home visits, ordering drug tests and notifying judges of violations. Fourteen crew members were arrested.

Five members had their power turned off for pirated electricity. Two were arrested on child-support warrants. Faced with higher bails - and the threat of federal cases - some crew members gave up information on homicides to stay out of prison.

McGlynn assigned prosecutors to review old court cases crew members might have beaten that could be reopened or kicked up to the feds.

"We look for any existing legal vulnerabilities," Lentz said.

Police Inspector Anthony Washington, commanding officer of South Division, created a gang task force to handle day-to-day enforcement.

Preparing for a recent patrol, the task force met in a district squad room.

"As for the infrastructure of that gang, we destroyed it," Lt. Gary Ferguson said of M-16. "It doesn't exist anymore."

On the wall behind Ferguson hung the list of targeted crew members.

"They call it being on the list," he said. "They don't want their names on the list."

During patrol that night, Officers Matt York and Anthony Mergiotti drove past 16th and Manton Streets and saw Ryshieene Douglas, 25.

His name is on the list.

When he was picked up on a burglary charge, bail was set at $25,000. McGlynn appealed that as too low and persuaded a judge to raise it to $100,000.

When Douglas heard that news, he cried. He was eventually freed when a judge quashed the charges.

At first, he said, he thought the police were just talking tough about the Focused Deterrence.

But now, he said, he knew it was for real.

"It's not just a threat," he said. "They enforce it."

While Douglas was glad to be walking free, he didn't know that as part of Focused Deterrence, police had given his name to narcotics officers who were watching the corner.

On Oct. 26, he was arrested for selling crack.

McGlynn asked for a high bail.

Since the task force began its work in February, more than 300 people have been arrested. Others have sought help.

Outreach workers say 16 people have taken advantage of support services.

Hassan Freeman, 42, who spent 14 years in prison for shooting a man, says he tells every one of the men he helps the same thing:

"I tell them they are getting the chance I wasn't given."

He was initially hesitant about the effort - worried about profiling and the possible incarceration of "a mass number of African American kids," he said.

Now, he is a believer that the program empowers those who want something better.

Like Kareem Miller, 24.

"You all want us to put the guns down. We need jobs out here," Miller told Freeman.

With Freeman's help, Miller now has two jobs: at a sneaker shop in a Montgomery County mall and in a refurbishing shop at Goodwill.

He is trying to get his friends to do the same. "You can't push a grown man," he said. "The ones that do want to do something with their lives, they are trying to get involved."

While most want work, others have asked for alcohol treatment, GED courses, help resolving domestic issues, or just help getting baby formula. Some have dropped out of the program, falling back in trouble, said social services coordinator Ruben Jones.

There's an outreach office now at 16th and Wharton Streets, where Freeman said he is working to arrange post-traumatic stress disorder counseling since so many have asked for it.

While the early signs of success have been encouraging, Bethel said, it is still too soon to see if the model could work in other parts of the city.

The statistics need to be studied, he said, to ensure that some of the violence isn't just being pushed into other areas of the city.

The biggest challenge, everyone seems to agree, will be long-term sustainability since gains in other cities have been reversed when the effort faded.

That's a hurdle Lentz, the former prosecutor, hopes the city will help overcome by providing funding and a director to guide the effort.

"For this to be successful, this can't be a short-term thing," he said. "It has to become the way you react to shootings."


>Inquirer.com

To see a video of Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey and others talking about the crime-fighting approach of Focused Deterrence, go to www.inquirer.com/deterrence


mnewall@phillynews.com

215-854-2759 @MikeNewall

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