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Death Takes A Holiday

Through innovative policing, some of America’s former murder capitals have gladly relinquished their title.

June 01, 2003  |  by Shelly Feuer Domash

Brotherly Love

Last year the Philadelphia Police Department celebrated the city's lowest homicide rate in almost 20 years. Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson believes an initiative called Operation Safe Streets deserves the lion's share of the credit.

As with other major city departments that have managed to reduce their murder rates, Philadelphia PD identified corners that had violent crimes and targeted those areas. In 2001, 5,144 guns were seized in these sweeps.

"We made arrests on those," says Johnson. "In addition, we went to locations of shootings, robberies, and homicides. Where we found drugs, we found guns. And where there was guns, there was violence. We wanted to make it difficult for a buyer or seller to do anything and by doing that we changed the quality of life."

Johnson is a proponent of community oriented policing as a means for knocking down the crime rate. "Traditional policing is not working. You have to do something preventative. We are doing a lot of apprenticeships, rehabilitation, a program with inmates in prisons, where we go up and bring kids to go and sit and talk to them."

These programs and other initiatives, including working with parents who have lost children and producing a film that was made by lifers, have, according to Johnson, been successful in Philadelphia. He says sometimes former offenders assist police officers in reaching out to the children in the city. "They don't go out for us, they go with us," he says.

Motor City Mayhem

Inspector Craig Schwartz of the Detroit Police Department says Motown's homicide rate has remained stable in recent years. But that's not good enough and the Detroit PD is finding new ways to fight back.

Realizing that many gang murders are revenge for previous violence, the Detroit police have implemented campaigns to stop retaliatory shootings. For example, the department is being more aggressive in its investigations of non-fatal shootings. The goal is to get the shooter in jail fast to prevent payback on the streets.

Gang retaliation aside, Schwartz says that the majority of shootings in Detroit tend to boil over as a result of arguments. "What we have is, in many cases, people with insufficient conflict-resolution skills and anger-management skills," he explains. "Situations that should never rise to this level of violence tend to. They react quickly and violently with tragic results and a large percentage also have some connection to the drug trade, perhaps not directly, but indirectly."

The Detroit PD is now in the process of developing a program for early intervention. When that program is completed, it is expected to have a long-term program developed for long-term solutions  "Homicide statistics are very difficult to predict. It is not a crime that lends itself easily to direct intervention methods," says Schwartz, adding that the department has been encouraged by the preliminary results of its intervention program.

District of Columbia

The District of Columbia has long been one of the nation's most crime-ridden communities. But it had been getting better.

Washington D.C.'s homicide rates were declining, until last year. Then, according to Alfred Broadbent, assistant chief of the D.C. Police Department, "they spiked up."

Broadbent believes the increase in capital city murders can be attributed to a number of different factors, including drugs, convicts coming home to the streets, and ready access to handguns.

"We're seeing more criminals being released from correctional facilities who were put there in the late '80s and early '90s when a lot of drug arrests were made," explains Broadbent. "And a lot of them are coming back into the community."

Of course, the convicts wouldn't be so deadly without weapons. According to Broadbent, the number one factor contributing to homicides in Washington is illegal guns. "If we didn't have guns, we wouldn't have these numbers of murders. A full 83 percent of murders are committed with handguns. If you take away the guns, you would take away the homicides," he says.

Washington had 262 homicides last year. The record shows that 201 of them were committed with guns. This despite the fact that it is illegal to own a handgun in Washington.

Broadbent blames surrounding states for funneling handguns into his jurisdiction. According to the D.C. Police Department, the majority of the guns are coming in from Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas, all states with much looser controls on handgun sales.

Making handguns illegal in D.C. hasn't stopped the violence. But the D.C. police are implementing new programs to make the streets safer.

"Every day we have a crime briefing where we bring in all the command staff from all the patrols and detective and narcotics units," says Broadbent. "We review the last 24 hours and make deployment decisions based on crime trends. We have a joint program with homicide and the narcotics unit where we are targeting our most violent areas. We are trying to be proactive about trying to prevent crime. If it is gang activity or if it is a murder between two gang members, we try to determine if it is a gang-type homicide and start looking for members in gangs that might retaliate. We are trying to be pretty aggressive about direct patrol tactics."

Another key initiative to reduce the violence in D.C. is to go after the gangs by targeting some of the key players and building criminal investigations on them. Broadbent says that gets them off the streets, and, as a result, gang activity has decreased in the city.

Shelly Feuer Domash is a Long Island-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to POLICE.

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