Philadelphia hopes to deter crime with the aid of 10,000 men

The Baltimore Sun

PHILADELPHIA -- The men on the corner of 16th and Page in North Philadelphia say they know what their neighborhood needs to stem the violence that has killed 306 people citywide so far this year, and that does not include putting 10,000 men on the street, as some black community leaders have proposed.

Amid the weed-strewn lots and boarded-up buildings of North Philadelphia, one of the city's toughest neighborhoods, the six men who gathered to talk, drink and play cards say the young people who pull guns and deal drugs need jobs, recreation centers, after-school programs and, most of all, parents who care for them.

"It's just going to be useless," said one, Robert Mosley Jr., 42. "As soon as those 10,000 guys go home, the drug dealers are going back out there, doing the same thing."

But others supported the initiative, saying it might help them feel better about coming out of their homes at night or allowing their children to play outside.

"It does make a lot of sense," said Cora Crawford, a 36-year-old single mother of five who lives on nearby Susquehanna Avenue. "Kids in this area are horrible. They need a positive role model in their life."

The plan to put 10,000 men on the streets for an initial period of 90 days starting late this year is the latest effort by Philadelphia's black community to curb violence that drove homicides to a nine-year high of 406 in 2006.

Groups of volunteers will be stationed on drug corners and other trouble spots in a bid to stop the shootings and other crimes that have given Philadelphia the highest homicide rate among the nation's 10 largest cities. They will not be armed or have police powers, and they will be identified only by armbands or hats during their three-hour shifts.

They will be trained in conflict resolution and are intended to be peacekeepers and mentors rather than law enforcers. Each patrol, however, will include a police officer.

Organizers, including Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson and the music producer Kenny Gamble, say they are open to volunteers of any ethnicity but are appealing mostly to African-Americans because some 85 percent of Philadelphia's shooting victims are black.

Johnson, who is black, said the initiative differed from previous anti-violence campaigns in that it was driven by popular demand, rather than by the Police Department or the city government.

Critics say the plan will fail to meet its recruitment goals, partly because it is too closely identified with the police, who will be responsible for selecting the areas to patrol and who are distrusted in many neighborhoods.

Archye Leacock, executive director of the Institute for the Development of African-American Youth, a Philadelphia nonprofit group, said the police were overburdened by trying to control the toughest areas and so would be unable to respond adequately to alerts from the volunteers.

Leacock also questioned whether the plan would motivate a generation of people who have learned to live with crime and violence.

But Bilal Qayyum, a co-founder of the anti-violence group Men United for a Better Philadelphia and a member of the organizing committee, described the response since the plan was announced Sept. 10 as "tremendous." He predicted that more than 10,000 volunteers would come forward when it starts on Oct. 21.

Qayyum conceded that the plan did not address underlying problems like unemployment, poverty, poor education and the easy availability of guns. Drug dealers will probably just move to the next block to avoid the volunteers, he said.

But he said that getting men to take responsibility for their own communities was a step in the right direction.

Near 16th and Page, Tyrone Dodson, 60, expressed hope that the plan would work. Like several others, Dodson said he planned to sign up because he believed it would deter the shootings outside his apartment almost every night.

"It would stop them," he said. "They don't want no witnesses."

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