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The 13th District

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By Mike Mallowe

"See all the bars on the windows and doors?" Mike Chitwood asks. "Those people right there have been robbed twice already, so now they have video cameras set up." As he says this, he points to a house close to the back end of Cobbs Creek Park, on the Upper Darby side. The park looks wild and over-grown from this perspective, almost menacing. We start moving through it.

Chitwood is older now, but he handles the terrain with ease. He still looks as fit and strong as ever. And why not? When you get up every day at 4 a.m., hit the gym and the weight room, then ride a mountain bike on a 20-mile circuit that stretches from West Chester Pike to the Main Line and back, it shows. The police chief of Upper Darby is a lean, tough 66 year old.

Behind us, the street is cool and quiet in the stillness of its former, leafy glory. The houses are mostly big twins. On one side it's all park - an urban woodland crowding the asphalt and threatening to overpower the street signs. People peek out windows, one woman, who looks Korean, maybe Vietnamese, stands tentatively and cautiously on the landing at the top of her steps, nervously adjusting her glasses. You get the feeling she's protecting her entryway, ready to fight to keep intruders out. 

On the way over, we drive through an area just east of 69th Street where you see more turbans than baseball caps. "The Sikhs are a big group here now," Chitwood says, as he waves to one of the men in a turban. "They're organized; it's a very ambitious group."

Sikhs from Punjab in India, Guatemalans from Central America, Africans from Liberia and Ivory Coast; Russian landlords for most of the stores along 69th Street; commercial signs in every alphabet, except English; over 72 languages and dialects from close to 70 countries - in his office Chitwood probably talks to more people through translators than one-on-one. That's Upper Darby today. "All roads lead to us," he says.

mchitwood.jpgImmigrants aren't the only ones who flock to Upper Darby. Criminals do, too. As police chief, Chitwood has been wrestling with more and more crimes ever since he took over the department in 2005. Major crimes - murder, rape, robbery, assaults, thefts and burglary - have gone up 15 percent in the last five years. (In Philadelphia, major crimes have declined by eight percent during the dame period) Today, Upper Darby has the highest numbers of crimes  in the Philadelphia suburbs, with nearly 5,800 offences reported each year. The numbers have been going up every year since 2000.

The township is 7.6 square miles, with a population that's supposed to be about 81,000. Estimates put the number of recent immigrants at close to 35,000. Upper Darby doesn't share any borders with foreign countries; but spend time at the SEPTA's 69th Street Terminal, or patronize the nearby shops and restaurants and bars, and you would never know that.

 "I think that's at least 10,000 short, just based on the largest group of immigrants that's coming in now - Latinos," Chitwood says. "They get hammered by immigration; I think we're only counting about one in 10. They should be one of the most vocal segments in the community; but they're afraid. We have police mentors active in every school, all committed young cops. When we give a kid an award for something good that he's done, if he's from Mexico or South or Central America, the family might be too scared to even show for the presentation. We get Phillies tickets for the kids; take them to games, but they're afraid to go. It breaks your heart."                 

We're heading into the park now, where old, well-used paths show only dirt amid the thick brush and high, sun-burned grass and walls of dense, old-growth trees ."If they're on foot," Chitwood says, referring to thieves, robbers, thugs of any kind, "they can't carry away that much. Maybe a television, money, a computer, jewelry. Anything electronic. On foot, they come in through the park. But, if they're driving, that's a different story."

Easy entry, easy exit

We move up a small hill and hear Cobbs Creek Parkway in the distance. You can't quite see it. Fairmount Park is wild and uncared for here, isolated. It's a problem for the Upper Darby police. "There's so many points of entry into the township - and points of exit - the bad guys have their choice." Chitwood lists them: Township Line Road, Victory Avenue, Marshall Road, State Road, Market Street, and Baltimore Pike as roads that have all been used for the commission of crimes.

  "We had a guy we just caught with the U.S. Marshals' fugitive squad. He'd been pulling jobs all over Philadelphia. Then, he came out here to do home invasions. He lived up in Frankford. He would follow people home. Usually people with small businesses in West Philadelphia, or on 69th Street, specifically Asians. It might be a Korean or a Vietnamese merchant.

"But this time he made a mistake. He followed the wrong person home. She just worked in somebody's store and didn't have that much herself. He grabbed what he could and pushed her around, but she could identify him. Real bad guy. We just found out the Marshals grabbed him in West Philadelphia, at 56th and Chester Avenue. And this guy's from Frankford. They get around. He'll have to come out here for trial now and, with any luck, one of our judges will bang him with high bail and a big sentence."

It's hardly a secret that Asian-American merchants are being targeted in Upper Darby and elsewhere. However, Chitwood sees this selectivity as a revolving pattern in which victims-of-opportunity are being preyed on. "It could be members of another immigrant community a couple months from now," he says. "Crime is always a question of proximity. You rob who and what you know. And, at this point, the career criminals coming into Upper Darby just happen to know where these Asian business owners are located."   

Don't try telling Chitwood that the wretched economy is part of the problem, either. "I think that has almost nothing to do with it," he says, somewhat surprisingly.

"We aren't seeing guys who just lost their jobs coming out to Upper Darby to commit break-ins or hold-ups," he says. "They guys never worked a day in their lives, so the economy doesn't mean a thing to them. They made a decision, at some point, to become career criminals, and that's all that they do. To say 'It's the economy' is to really misread what's happening. That doesn't answer any questions. Criminals commit crimes, over and over."

 

The 13th District

 "I call Upper Darby 'the 13th District,'" Chitwood says, as he looks back to where the woman was standing in front of her house. He appears concerned, but angry, too. "We see the Philadelphia patterns repeating themselves in the township."

Philadelphia does not have a 13th police district. Blame that on superstition, like the 13th floor in an office building. But Philadelphia does have the 12th, 18th and 19th districts, all busy, all with significant crimes. They share borders with Upper Darby and crime crosses those borders all the time, home invasions, assaults, gun crimes, thefts, drug deals, even murder. The neighborhoods in Upper Darby closest to West and Southwest Philadelphia have the most problems, especially Long Lane, the Second Ward Park and 69th Street. But serious, violent crimes are also moving further west, into the real suburbs, where car thefts and burglaries were once considered an outrage. Chitwood and Upper Darby are, literally, the first line of defense; there's action every day. He's working with a budget of a little under $22 million, 132 officers, and dozens of nervous neighborhoods.

Mike Chitwood came to Upper Darby as superintendent of police five years ago. He needed a change and so did the department. Morale was low; evidence guns were disappearing; a low-level mob guy had apparently skated on a DUI. No one had ever indoctrinated the cops on how to be aggressive.

Chitwood knew that he had to come in and lead by example. That's when the 20-mile bike rides began. He formed his mountain bike unit, equipped it with the best bikes he could afford and then amazed his men by going out and patrolling right along with them. He got their attention. Mainly, he wanted to make a point with them that could mean life-or-death on the street: aggressive police work could be contagious. But, it had to start somewhere; the example had to be set. 

He showed up on every shift, went out on raids, joined in pursuits, made arrests, insisted on clean, honest arrests (regardless of the suspects' connections), stood up to the politicians, picked the fights that he had to, backed his men and made his men proud to be Upper Darby cops. And that was all during his first six months.

"It used to be that if you called the police they acted like you were annoying them," a woman who lived in a neighborhood with open-air drug deals said, "now, they get right back to you on everything. It's been a total change. You see the police everywhere."

Two of a kind

Chitwood had been the chief of police in Portland, Maine for 17 years. "That was different," as he puts it. The action there seemed esoteric after South Philly and the mafia wars of the 1970s and 1980s, when Chitwood seemed to catch every big murder. Before Maine, he had been a relentless homicide detective in Philadelphia. To some people he was the last action hero; to others he was too big for a very insular department. By the time he left Philadelphia, Chitwood had also thrived as one of the city's top hostage negotiators. Somehow, the worst cases always found Chitwood. He was also edgy and smart and in incredible shape. Seemingly one-of-a-kind.  Chitwood was the most decorated policeman in the city's history. While he was in Maine, his son, Mike Chitwood, Jr., now the police chief in Daytona, Florida, decided to follow in his father's footsteps, accumulating his own legends and decorations, before taking over in Florida. Make that two-of-a-kind. That's the Chitwood family trade.

Upper Darby is the Delaware County suburb that's closest-in to the tight, over-heated sprawl of West Philadelphia. As soon as people began making serious money -- not great money, but comfortable money -- they moved there, buying nice houses that were outside the reach of the city -- an American Dream realized, beginning in the late 1950s.

My own relatives did that, but they didn't pick this particular street. My family stayed in Fairmount, though; we never made it to the comfortable part. Bob-the-bread man used to stop by our house almost every day, delivering Bond bread and advice. Bob owned his own route and he was doing OK. He was the first person I ever knew who moved to Upper Darby. He used to sit in our kitchen regaling my mother and father with stories of Cobbs Creek overflowing and the glories of shopping on 69th Street, always with observations of how great it was to live "all the way out in Upper Darby." My mother just listened and had a hot cup of coffee waiting for him. Millions of post-war Bob-the-breadmen created the 20th century history of the western and northern suburbs outside Philadelphia. Never did they dream that a Mike Chitwood would have to come along and rescue them, like Wyatt Earp riding into Tombstone.

Most suburbs have a murder once every 50 years, if that. Brutal home invasions, one of the most frightening, repellant crimes in police work, in which armed invaders break into a house while the family is still there, robbing, assaulting, raping, killing - who knows? -- are even rarer. (Note: Radnor had a home invasion last week. A Chinese-American family was victimized by four armed intruders.

Chitwood has had to deal with so many home invasions that the leaders in the Vietnamese community are threatening to pull out of the township, en masse. The police chief always gets the angry calls first. He takes them, too.

In many places crime is steadily trickling into the suburbs, like the spreading leak in the roof of the Upper Darby police headquarters, on West Chester Pike. The contractor recently told Chitwood that he doesn't know how the roof has lasted this long; the water is flooding up there. When you consider the types of crimes that he sees now, the frequency with which automatic weapons are used and the long criminal backgrounds of the repeat offenders who are following the same routes into Upper Darby as Bob-the-breadman once did, Chitwood sometimes thinks that he might be facing a flood-stage, as well.  

During 2008 in Upper Darby, his third year there,  Chitwood had seven murders, 18 rapes, almost 800 assaults, 264 robberies, 339 burglaries, and close to 73,000 calls for police service.

Chitwood knew he wasn't in Maine anymore.

 

Tomorrow: Chitwood's fight against drugs and drug-related crime.

 

    

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