Monday, April 4, 2016

My Crime Beat Column: South Philly Crime - A Look Back At My Q&A With Philadelphia Deputy Police Commissioner Richard A. Zappile

The below column originally appeared in the South Philadelphia American in 1995:

Richard A. Zappile, 49, a lifelong South Philadelphian, was recently promoted to deputy police commissioner for operations by Mayor Edward G. Rendell.

I interviewed him in his third floor office at the Police Administration Building, also known as the "Roundhouse" due to the old building's shape. We discussed the problems in South Philly and the rest of the city.  

Davis: What does your new position as deputy commissioner entail?

Zappile: As deputy commissioner of operations, I have all the uniform and detective forces in the city, which totals somewhere in the neighborhood of 47, 000 people. This is a large bulk of the police department. I'm responsible for providing police services to our clients, the community, in all areas of the city.

Davis: Can you give us a brief overview of your police career?

Zappile: I'm entering my 30th year in the police department. I started out as a police officer walking a beat in the 16th District at 39th and Lancaster. I was a detective, narcotics officer and an instructor at the police academy. I was a lieutenant in police radio, worked as a patrol lieutenant and a captain and investigator for internal affairs. I commanded the SWAT team as an inspector. I set up the Center City District. I was chief of human resources, chief of detectives, chief of operations and now deputy commissioner. I have been very fortunate to have worked in just about every area in the police department.

Davis: At the press conference announcing your appointment, Mayor Rendell described you as a "true problem solver." Were you given a particular set of problems to solve by the mayor or Commissioner Neal?

Zappile: The Mayor was very kind in saying that, but it is a continuing series of problems which beset this department every day. The problems are sometimes internal and sometimes external.

Davis: Will you now be in a good position to make South Philadelphia a better place to work and live?

Zappile: I work real close with Councilman Frank DiCicco, Jimmy Kenney, Ann Verna, Senator Vince Fumo, and all the politicians in South Philadelphia. We are very committed to solving the problems. One of the biggest we are trying to address right now is graffiti. Double parking may not sound like a big deal, but its really people saying, listen, I don't care about anybody else. These are little things in themselves, but it changes the character of the neighborhood. Parking on the sidewalk might not be a big deal, but people who walk on the sidewalks are now inconvenienced. We are seeing people who just don't care about their neighbors anymore. I think it will take a real concerted effort on the part of government, police and neighbors to put our foot down and say we are not going to take this anymore. You have to set the tone in the community. Town watch is a good example. The Town Watches are the best deterrent of crime and they show that these people care about their neighborhood.

Davis: Can you comment on the suspension of the seven-year-long federally mandated prison cap where criminal suspects would be released by merely signing their own bond - called S.O.B's - and what this means to South Philadelphia?

Zappile: I just read a report that says that there is a fallacy about who we think are in prision. It is not the first time offenders, it's people who belong in prison. I think we should open them up and put more people in prisons. Our criminal justice system is almost a joke because we have career criminals who keep revolving through that door of justice. Incarceration is the only way that I can guarantee that a person will not commit crime again. I think it less expensive to pay for that incarceration than to allow the economic damage to society. One good step is or trying to eliminate the prison cap. Boot camps are a good alternative to being free on probation, parole or suspended sentences. The system has to look at itself creatively.

Davis: Will the 39th District corruption cases permanently hurt the image of the police department?

Zappile: The 39th District incident has hurt this generation of police officers in the sense that people now view police in a different way. No one is more upset than the police over what those officers did. The conditions that existed back in the late 1980's that permitted that to happen do not exist anymore. We have taken steps to ensure more supervisory accountability and more officer responsibility. That type of systematic corruption could not happen in this environment, but we are not lulled into complacency. We have constant safeguards out there. One problem we are fighting is the posse, or hang 'em high mentality. Ordinary citizens are so fed up with crime that they will tolerate a certain       amount of brutality and police misconduct. But as a police organization, we have to say our job is not to punish people or to inflict pain, we are there to enforce the laws.

Davis: How do you deal with the different perceptions of the police that appears to cross racial lines?

Zappile: I don't think there is any one segment of the community who supports or opposes the police. I think that a majority of the people support the police. I think we need each other and because of the violence and the crime rate, more and more people are interacting with police officers. We have police officers who mistreat people and sometimes exceed their authority. We try to deal with them internally and if necessary we will arrest them. We fire 40 to 50 people a year for criminal misconduct or internal violations. I want to stress the fact that if anyone has a problem with an individual officer, they should be sure to make a complaint. That is the only way we can find out who is not doing their job properly. We will not tolerate any kind of misconduct, be it verbal abuse, physical abuse or corruption. Your complaint doesn't have to go to the police department, it could go to the DA's office or the FBI.

Davis: Does the police department need additional oversight, as recommended by some members of city council?

Zappile: I think that right now the police department has plenty of oversight. The FBI is constantly monitoring every action we take and I can't think of any organization that has the capabilities or resources of the FBI. They do a fantastic job. We also have the inspector general and the District Attorney's office within the city.

Davis: With the conviction of crime boss John Stanfa and other Cosa Nostra members, do you see a decline in organized crime in South Philly, or do see an emergence of Asian or Russian organized crime factions getting into the act?

Zappile: That whole segment of Cosa Nostra organized crime is crippled and in disarray. It is dangerous now because we don't know who's running it and everyone is vying for control. The emergence of the Asian and Russian mobs has been something that law enforcement has been developing intelligence on for about five years. They don't just work regionally, they work the whole eastern seaboard and they usually work in segmented areas. We suspect the Balkens are involved with major burglary rings and the Russians have been involved with oil deals and really complicated ways of beating excise taxes. We are cognizant of what they are doing and we have made some arrests, but i don't see any emergence of large scale gangs in South Philly. I'm more concerned about parents who allow their children to walk around with bandannas on and mimic the "Crips" and the "Bloods" gangs. These kids are like those involved in the Eddie Polec case. They are not connected to the L.A. gangs and maybe they are just playing out some fantasy, but I'm concerned about this happening in South Philly. I urge parents to discourage their 13 or 15-year-old kids from wearing gang colors.

Davis: Do you have a vision of South Philly for the future?

Zappile: I'm part of the community, so I have a vested interested. All of my family, my five kids, live there. My professional vision is that we can come together and make South Philadelphia a safe and viable place to live and work.