below column originally appeared in the South Philadelphia American in 1997.
Last week I overheard an elderly woman tell a friend that her car had been stolen that morning.
"The Devil's alive," the woman sadly told her friend.
In my time I've seen much of what this woman calls the "Devil's Work." I've long been a student of crime, dating back to my days as a 12-year-old South Philly street kid and aspiring writer.
went on to do security work as a young sailor in the U.S. Navy and later as a
Defense Department civilian employee. As a writer, I've specialized in crime
reporting and commentary for newspapers and magazines.
I've grown up on the mean streets of South Philly and I've been to the "Badlands" of North Philly, as well as those tough areas of Olongapo in the Philippines, Tijuana, Mexico and a number of other exotic and dangerous cities.
area I've often visited is a place that one does not normally think of as a
hot-bed of crime.
While many Philadelphians and tourists call Center City, our business and cultural center, "downtown," when I was growing up in South Philly, we who were located geographically as far south as one can be within the city limits, called Center City "in-town." As in "I'm going in-town this afternoon."
I ventured in-town to pay a visit to Philadelphia Police Inspector Frank M. Pryor, the commanding officer of the Central Police Division in Center City. Pryor has commanded the Central Division for five years and he is responsible for a five square mile area that encompasses the 6th, 9th and Center City Police Districts. He also commands the Central Detectives Division.
I sat across from Pryor's desk in his office near 21st and Pennsylvania Avenue. He told me that Center City's crime is down 7.4% in all part-one crimes (such as murder, rape, robbery).
"In my five years we have seen a 24% decrease in crime," Pryor said. "I like to think that community policing has made some impact."
Pryor said they pushed down the responsible duties of a captain and inspector to a sergeant. He noted that a month ago the mayor had a meeting with the Chamber of Commerce, and he asked the inspector to accompany him.
"I brought a sergeant with me because he's the guy who solves our problems," Pryor said. "He's in charge of a 12-officer service detail trained to deal with the homeless. A sergeant meeting with the mayor was unheard of years ago."
Pryor said each district has a community policing team made up of a community relations officer, a victim assistance officer and a statistician who does crime mapping.
"Community policing has put a name on the face of the cop," Pryor said.
Pryor said they have a major problem with the homeless. It's not a crime to be homeless, Pryor explained, but many people don't want them in their neighborhood.
"Unless they do something illegal, we are not going to bother them," Pryor said. "In the winter and during hot weather we transport them to shelters. But we have zero tolerance for aggressive panhandling."
Pryor explained that many of the so-called homeless are in fact street hustlers.
"We have identified 70 to 80 hard-core drug and alcohol abusers on the street. They don't want to be in a shelter, so we are looking at their conduct. They have their constitutional rights, but when they infringe on other's rights it is time to take appropriate action."
Pryor offered a bit of some common-sense crime prevention advice.
"Car phones left visible on the console are often stolen. Put your phones and laptops in the trunk," Pryor said. "It only takes 30 seconds to hit that window and get your valuables."
Pryor said drugs were a problem in Center City, but it was not as severe a problem as other parts of the city.
"There are approximately 15 to 18 drug locations, and we are working with the community and making a lot of arrests. I have a narcotics field unit that has beepers, and the community people contact them directly."
Pryor said that male and female prostitution is a problem around certain areas. He said they also have a big problem with what they call retail theft, or shoplifting. He said that last year they arrested 2, 800 people.
Pryor told me that he is assigning more foot beat patrols back into the community. Bike patrols are also very successful. He had the idea to go to CoreStates, who sponsors the bike race, and ask for a grant to provide bikes for the police. There are now 150 bikes in the city.
"From my perspective, I've seen the
renaissance of Center City," Pryor said. "There are more restaurants,
more businesses and more hotels. There is the Avenue of the Arts and the
Convention Center. Most people don't realize that 40% of all taxes are
generated from Center City residents and businesses," Pryor concluded.