Sunday, February 7, 2016

My Crime Beat Column: 'Drugs Are the Root Of Street Crime," Says Police Sergeant Out On Patrol In South Philly

The below column appeared in the South Philadelphia American on December 22, 1995:

Not far from my own private South Philly, a relatively safe haven, there is another South Philly where drugs and drug-related crime are the key social and economic factors.

I toured some of South Philly's meanest streets on a recent Friday night with Philadelphia Police Sgt. Al Rossi.

"Drugs are the root of nearly all street crime," Rossi told me as I accompanied him on patrol in the city's Third Police District. "Those who want to buy drugs and don't have the money are desperate, so they shoplift, mug and burglarize."

The Third District, like the rest of South Philly, is composed of checkerboard neighborhoods where the affluent are geographically linked to the improvised. The Third District consists of South Street, with its store front bright lights and alternative life-styles very much in evidence.  The Third is also home to the old and crumpling housing projects that coexist alongside the grand homes of millionaires in Queens Village.

Rossi and the officers under his command respond to a variety of crimes, including domestic disputes, car thefts and the "silent crime" - burglary. Rossi explained that criminals appear to be getting dumber (perhaps because of drugs?)

"Most of the crimes are "opportunity crimes," the kind of crimes that are committed on the spur of the moment, rather than planed heists," Rossi said. "This lack of planning actually makes police work harder as we can't set traps or work with informants. To prevent opportunity crimes, we have to be on the scene to dissuade it or catch the criminals in the act."

And there are just not enough officers out there today to do that job effectively.

Rossi, a South Philadelphia resident, is a third generation cop. He followed his father and grandfather when he joined the Philadelphia Police Department 14 years ago. He clearly likes being a cop. He told me that he served in K-9 for a time and was a detective in West Philly for six years prior to his promotion to sergeant and posting to the Third last year.

He's known as a tough but fair cop and being over six feet tall and muscular, I saw how the street thugs gave him their reluctant respect. Married with a young daughter, Rossi said he is concerned about the toll that drugs and drug-related crime are having on South Philly.

Rossi drove me to the site of an anti-drug protest near 5th and Washington Avenue. On a small street corner nearly 50 protesters from the Queens Village Neighborhood Town Watch, the Mayor's Inter-City Anti-Crime Coalition, as well as a handful of recovering addicts, bravely took their protest to the doorstep of a known drug dealer's house.

They chanted slogans such as "Up with hope, down with dope," "Save the children, save the babies," and "Shut 'em Down." The resident drug dealers did not take kindly to this unusual holiday caroling and they countered by hurling obscenities back at the protesters.

I found it odd that on this poor street, only the drug dealers had adorned their house with Christmas decorations. One can say the drug dealers have "high" spirits during the holiday season.

Accompanying the anti-drug protesters was Captain Michael Cooney, the Commanding Officer of the Third. He marched along with the protesters partly as a sign of community support and partly to keep the peace between the two factions.

The protesters, like Rossi, see drugs as the source of all of their neighborhood's ills. Their protest and confrontation may have disrupted one drug dealer's business for a few hours, but it will take much more to stop drugs from decimating the neighborhood.

As a South Philly teenager in the 1960s, I saw my share of drug-related crime. I recall that no car eight-track tape player, radio or hubcaps were safe from the heroin addicts that roamed South Philly at night like vampires. Junkie thieves then and now are a problem for those of us who work hard for our homes and cars. The police lock up the drug-addicted crooks, but they are back out on the street and stealing again in far too short a time.

Having attended a real "Boot Camp" when I enlisted in the U.S. Navy at 17, I'd like to see "Drug Boot Camps" set up for nonviolent drug offenders. We'd get them off the street and the paramilitary discipline and training might help them kick their habit. The boot camps are less expensive than prisons and they have had much success across the country.

But until we can diminish drug-related crime, we can at least be thankful we have good cops like Sgt. Al Rossi out there on the job.

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