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Philadelphia Inquirer
Friday, October 24, 1997

How crime hits Phila. neighborhoods

A dozen neighborhoods account for a large portion of violent crime.

By Clea Benson and Craig R. McCoy,

Drug dealers waving handguns sometimes chase each other down Loraya Butler's block in North Philadelphia. A few months ago, their shots whistled past her toddler grandchildren as they played outside.

The gunfire often greets Butler at 11 p.m. when she gets off the bus coming home from work. It jolts her awake at 1 or 2 a.m. It's not hard for Butler, 43, to identify her neighborhood's biggest crime problem: ``The killings, the senseless killings, and the drugs.''

Glenn Devitt also worries about crime, but a different kind. His neighborhood, the Wissinoming section of Northeast Philadelphia, has less violent crime than many suburban towns. His chief complaint: ``We're getting killed in burglaries and car thefts.''

Is crime out of control in Philadelphia? It depends where you live.

Murder, rape and robbery are heavily concentrated in a patchwork of neighborhoods in West and North Philadelphia. In that hot zone, the rates of such crime are among the nation's highest.

In most middle-class residential areas, violent crime is more fear than fact. The main threat is property crime - a car swiped from an unlocked garage, a house burgled after a window was carelessly left open.

This picture of crime in Philadelphia emerges from detailed crime data released to the media for the first time by the Police Department. Using the data, The Inquirer did a neighborhood-by-neighborhood analysis, mapping 102,282 major crimes - murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft, car break-ins and car theft. The data were for the year ending July 31, 1996, the most recent 12-month period for which complete statistics are available.

The numbers were recounted to eliminate glitches that have raised doubts about the accuracy of yearly crime totals reported to the FBI by Philadelphia police.

The analysis found that:

* Cars are by far the most common target for criminals. Car thefts and car break-ins represent almost half of all reported crime in Philadelphia. They are the leading types of crime in a majority of neighborhoods.

* A dozen neighborhoods - Fairhill, Tioga, Mantua, Kingsessing, Hunting Park, East Germantown and parts of North Philadelphia - are besieged by violent crime. Rates of murder, rape and robbery are twice as high as for the city as a whole, and 15 times as high as in the city's safest neighborhoods.

* Some other neighborhoods are as safe as some suburbs. Fox Chase, Roxborough and Bustleton, for instance, have a slightly lower rate of violent crime than Springfield Township in Delaware County, Caln Township in Chester County and Burlington Township in South Jersey.

* Crowds draw criminals. Center City and the Delaware Avenue nightclub strip in Fishtown, which are flooded by commuters, tourists or other visitors, have the highest crime rates in the city.

* Next to Center City, the neighborhoods with the most property crime tend to be those just outside downtown - areas such as Fairmount, Powelton, University City and Queen Village, where affluent professionals live blocks from streets where dollars are scarce.

* While the city's overall crime rate has been relatively flat in recent years, robberies surged from 1992 through 1996. They were increasingly committed at gunpoint, bucking a national trend.

* Under pressure from police, prostitutes have been migrating from their former haunts in Center City to neighborhood locales such as Woodland Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia and Kensington Avenue in the lower Northeast. ``These are not your stereotypical, dress-up, Hollywood hookers,'' said Lt. John Cerrone, head of the police vice squad. ``These are drug addicts raising money for their latest fix.''

* Shopping malls are a magnet for crime, just as in the suburbs. The police sector that includes Franklin Mills Mall in the Northeast has more reported property crime than any other in the city. In the 12-month period studied by The Inquirer, there were 1,524 property crimes in that area, mainly thefts and car thefts.

The daily barrage of crime - the shattered glass of car windows, the pop of 9mm weapons on narrow streets - seems random to those watching the nightly news or following garbled reports on scratchy police radios. But experts who spend their time analyzing crime data see the bigger picture.

One striking pattern is that criminals are drawn downtown.

``We do a lot of studies of awareness. What we find is that low-income people are not aware of very much outside of their own neighborhoods,'' said George Rengert, a Temple University criminologist and author of The Geography of Illegal Drugs. ``If they're aware of anything else, it tends to be the civic center. Criminals don't like to work in unknown territory.''

Nearly 8 of 10 suspects arrested in Center City last year lived elsewhere. In most other areas, crimes were committed overwhelmingly by people living in the neighborhood.

Another pattern is that crime ebbs on some streets in Center City and flows elsewhere as the sun goes down.

``We looked at the Franklin Institute and the Art Museum to see whether auto theft would cluster there between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., and that's exactly what happened,'' Rengert said, describing his recent study. At night when tourists went home, he found, auto thefts receded from the Benjamin Franklin Parkway into surrounding neighborhoods such as Fairmount.

In Center City, the crime picture is complicated by the workday influx of 400,000 commuters, tourists and others. If those people werecounted as part of the downtown population, Center City's crime rate would be the lowest by far in Philadelphia.

Using the traditional method, which counts only the area's 70,000 residents, downtown has the city's highest crime rate. The Inquirer used that method for this analysis.

By either reckoning, murder, rape, assault, robbery, and burglary have all fallen dramatically in Center City in recent years.

Paul Levy, executive director of the Center City District, the sidewalk-sweeping and safety organization set up six years ago, says Center City has been getting cleaner, brighter and more thronged with people - hence, safer.

``I don't want to miminize the seriousness of crime,'' Levy said. ``But the crime-trend lines, with the exception of theft from auto, and the perceptions of safety are all improving dramatically.''

Still, Center City authorities acknowledge that theft is a stubborn problem. Last year, there were 1,564 smash-and-grab thefts from parked cars, according to data compiled by the Center City District.

``Theft is killing us. Auto theft is bad,'' said Police Lt. Bill Schmid, who commands the Center City District's police unit. ``Don't leave anything in your car. That's true in the heart of every city.''

The same advice applies in neighborhoods just outside downtown.

University City is the classic buffer neighborhood. Its wide streets of restored Victorians are the frontier between Center City and narrower streets of crumbling rowhouses. And even in broad daylight, criminals commute from poorer neighborhoods, punching in car windows and robbing residents.

Barry Grossbach, 58, a history professor at Community College of Philadelphia and a longtime neighborhood activist, knows this firsthand. He's been held up twice in the last four years. He says he stood out as a target because foot traffic has diminished so much in the area. He cites the security-van services operated by universities and big landlords to shuttle students around.

Trying to turn things around, the University of Pennsylvania has paid for extra lighting, deployed security personnel deeper into the surrounding neighborhood, and helped set up a clean-sidewalks district modeled on the Center City District.

Grossbach sees such efforts as a beginning.

``If you abandon the streets, you leave those who are still out there very vulnerable,'' he said. ``You create a no-man's land. We just have to encourage people to take the streets back. That's the only way cities will survive.''

People in Rhawnhurst still talk about the bold burglar who pulled off a heist in broad daylight.

``He actually took the hinges off the door,'' said Kathy Sieminski, 43, a town-watch leader who lives around the corner from the family that was ripped off. ``It was so brazen. People thought he was putting in a new screen door or something.''

Sieminski's son Jeffrey, 14, lost his bike to a thief when he left it unlocked outside a neighbor's house. Across the street, a family's car was broken into in their driveway, and the expensive CD player was stripped out.

``When I get off from patrol at 1 a.m.,'' said Sieminski, ``I look all around before I lock my car. I'm aware to look out for these things, but most people do not.''

Northeast Philadelphia reflects the split personality of crime in the city. It's one of the city's safest areas when it comes to violent crime. Yet property crime is a stubborn presence.

In Rhawnhurst, a community of 27,500, there were 1,976 property crimes over the 12-month period studied by The Inquirer, giving the neighborhood the ninth-highest property-crime rate in the city.

Concern over theft, prostitution, and drugs is so intense in the Northeast that 400 people turned out last week for a meeting with police commanders.

``It was people from every part of [the Northeast],'' said State Rep. John J. Taylor (R., Phila.), one of several legislators who have been pushing Mayor Rendell to overhaul the Police Department. ``And believe me, nobody got up and said, `Boy, aren't things better.' ''

Police say that because Northeast residents know they are relatively safe from violent crime, they often fail to guard themselves against property crime.

``The Northeast has probably the most [property] crimes in the city, and that's probably because of the shopping places,'' said Inspector James Boyle, commander of the Northeast Police Division. ``There's Franklin Mills Mall and a lot of strip malls. There's a lot of retail thefts and car theft. People should take all the precautions they can.''

Philadelphia is among the safest of the 10 most populous U.S. cities. In the early 1990s, it had the lowest crime rate among the largest cities, according to FBI statistics. But crime in other major cities has dropped dramatically since then, and it has risen in Philadelphia. New York, San Diego and Los Angeles now have lower crime rates than Philadelphia, and that has fueled a debate about the performance of the Police Department.

A bipartisan group of state legislators that includes Taylor has pushed Mayor Rendell to adopt crime-fighting techniques credited with making New York streets safer.

Police Commissioner Richard Neal is reviewing how the department deploys its 6,750 officers, and former New York Police Commissioner William Bratton visited Philadelphia this week to advise the city on the issue.

Some political leaders say Philadelphia could do more to pinpoint what the problems are in particular neighborhoods, and respond accordingly.

``Let's compare North Philadelphia versus Frankford. Is it guns, or break-ins or what have you?'' said City Councilman-at-large Angel Ortiz, chairman of Council's Public Safety Committee and a critic of Neal. ``Develop a neighborhood strategy to attack those problems.''

The Inquirer's neighborhood picture of crime was developed from data that police give the FBI for its annual national survey of crime. The data included a detailed record of each reported crime, including location, time, whether a weapon was used, and characteristics of victim and suspect.

The administration's crime statistics came under sharp criticism last month when it was revealed that the annual reports to the FBI didn't include all crimes that occurred in a year, but rather those that police logged into their records in that time. A lag developed, so the report for a given year was missing several months' worth of crime from that year while including data from the previous year.

The city and the FBI agreed this month to throw out the city's crime totals for 1996 and the first half of 1997 so police could re-count them.

The numbers used for this article were retabulated to eliminate the lag. The Inquirer assembled all reported crimes that occurred from Aug. 1, 1995, to July 31, 1996. That was the most recent 12-month period for which complete data were available.

Philadelphia's annual totals may not precisely reflect a calendar year's worth of crime, but they are considered an accurate barometer of crime trends. And they show one little-noticed but menacing trend: Increasingly, killers and robbers are reaching for guns.

Nationally, murders and robberies have been in a deep dive in recent years. The proportion in which firearms were used has fallen even more sharply nationwide, according to a study by the Center for the Prevention of Handgun Violence, a Washington-based group that favors gun control.

In Philadelphia, the trend on gun violence has gone the other way.

While the number of murders has dropped from 442 in 1991 to 414 last year, the percentage committed with guns has been rising steadily, reaching a peak of 81 percent last year, compared with 72 percent in 1991.

Robberies, meanwhile, have risen 11 percent since 1991 and most of that growth was in gun stickups. Robberies at knifepoint and ``strong-arm'' robberies have seen no significant increase.

One reason may be that in Pennsylvania, anyone without a criminal record can get a permit to carry a firearm and can buy as many guns as he or she wants. And a 1995 state law has prevented the city from banning assault rifles or imposing other restrictions tougher than those in the rest of Pennsylvania.

The Police Department and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are cooperating to crack down on the illegal gun trade.

``We're focusing on guns,'' said Chief Inspector Vincent DeBlasis, head of the police detective divisions. ``Law-abiding citizens can get them, but we're talking about taking them away from the criminals.''

Edward Butler, 66, watches the day go by from his newsstand at Broad and Erie. He hasn't been held up yet, but he's seen it happen to plenty of other people. His newsstand has been scarred by stray bullets.

The corner was once a place where, Butler will tell you, ``you could eat off the pavement.'' Now, it's busy, but seedy. Commuters waiting for buses line the sidewalks, possible prey. Street vendors hawk jewelry, T-shirts and perfumed oils, their wares tempting to snatch-and-run artists.

Last year, police recorded 17 robberies at the intersection, five of them at gunpoint. It was among the top 20 locations in Philadelphia for robbery. Most of those locations were shopping intersections in low-income neighborhoods.

Butler and other merchants have asked police to station an officer at the intersection full-time. They feel helpless.

``Robberies are the biggest problem,'' he says. ``I see it happening, and unfortunately, I can't do anything.''

Contributing to this article were Inquirer staff writers Jere Downs, Larry King, Nathan Gorenstein and Tom Torok; graphic artist Matt Ericson; Philadelphia Online software developer Ranjit Bhatnagar; and correspondent Stephanie Brenowitz.

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