Philadelphia Metropolis

Metropolis Report


The 13th District: Part II

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By Mike Mallowe

"Did you ever see what 20 officers jumping out of the back of a Hertz box truck looks like?" Mike Chitwood asks.

That's what happened during one of the first drug raids the Upper Darby police conducted under Chitwood as their new chief after he arrived to head the department in 2005. It signaled a new aggressiveness towards drug and drug-related crime, which the veteran police chief believed were a big cause of the townships' troubles.

"Starting with that first year, we obtained hundreds of search warrants; made hundreds of arrests; acted on every complaint," Chitwood says. "We went after people if they had one cigarette. We didn't let them get away with anything. We'd go up to a drug corner and take 25 people in. In the beginning the neighbors just stood outside and looked. After a while, as word got around, they'd come out and cheer, start clapping for the police."

Drugs, more than anything else, brought Chitwood to Upper Darby from Portland, Maine. "We had - and still have - everything: cocaine, heroin, crack, marijuana, meth,' he says, "And the minute you have drugs, you are guaranteed to have burglary and robbery. They have to get the money somewhere."

When he came to Upper Darby five years ago, drug trafficking was so causal that it had moved outdoors, to a large extent. If people saw the deals taking place, no one seemed to care; the dealers weren't worried. Drug use was only one piece of the pattern. "Drugs are related to crime," the Office of National Drug Control Policy writes, "first, the crimes involving drugs, including use, possession, sale and manufacturing; and, second, through the effects they have on the user's behavior and by generating violence and other illegal activity."

paraphernalia-bw.jpgThat was hardly news to Chitwood, or most other cops. In an area like Upper Darby, which is almost 70 percent residential, drug use is seen, primarily, as a "quality of life" criminal issue. Away from the 69th Street corridor, the rest of the township was holding up fairly well, with the exception of break-ins and property crimes. But the violence was definitely creeping westward. And the drugs seemed to be everywhere.

"The people on my block couldn't even push their baby strollers," explained Cathie Rodgers, a resident of one of the most active drug locations in Upper Darby in 2005. "People felt scared, but they were angry, too. It was bad."

"It was like Dodge City"

David Hulsey was the president of the Business Association in Upper Darby then. The greater 69th Street neighborhood, for all its problems, crime and otherwise, is a bustling place today, as close to an open-air marketplace as you are likely to get in a big American suburb. There's haggling and energy and multiple languages and the unmistakable pace of families-in-a-hurry getting on with their lives. Today, people seem too busy to give into the fear of crime.

That was not the case five years ago. "It was like Dodge City," Hulsey said, "the town was infested with drug houses and businesses were closing and their owners were leaving because of the crimes linked to drugs. People were getting robbed at gun-point and we didn't have the wherewithal to deal with the problem.

"People were afraid to leave their houses," he recalls. "They were terrified to let their children go out on the street and play. It was brazen, day-light, open-air sales." 

The police knew that a disproportionate amount of crimes against persons and property were being committed by drug addicts. Drug turf wars were a continual source of weapons offenses and violent crimes. To attack the problem on all fronts Chitwood inaugurated a new era of forming partnerships with the Delaware County District Attorney's Drug Task Force and with an array of social service organizations - human services, housing, public health, community activists, churches, politicians, business associations. He knocked on doors, introduced himself, explained to people that, yes, he was that Mike Chitwood, the legendary cop from Philadelphia, and that yes, he was back in town, back to stay. This PR, promotional, get-to-know-the-players blitz was classic Chitwood. He had done it everywhere he had ever worked. To traditional cops, it was disconcerting; to the communities that were now getting immediate police response, it was refreshing. "When I first came here", he says, "there were plenty of people who were definitely not Mike Chitwood guys."

As soon as he arrived in Upper Darby, Chitwood had to install what a CEO in a different field might call a new "culture".

"In places outside the big city," he says, "there is not the same awareness of crime. There's considerably less alertness to what's happening. That applies to the residents and to the police. It can be a lack of experience, not a lack of willingness."

That's how it was in Upper Darby. And, that situation was being feed by the perception among the more violent city-bred criminals that the suburbs were a target-rich environment of easy marks and of police departments that were small and laid-back. "They figured they would have less chance of getting arrested if they came out here," Chitwood says, "You are leaving your neighborhood where the district police already know who the trouble-makers are and where people are more cautious. Plus, there's the perception that people in the suburbs are more affluent. Upper Darby is the suburb that's closest to Southwest Philadelphia, so that made us the first stop."  

He had a plan. "We had to make life as miserable as possible for the drug dealers, for any kind of criminal," Chitwood says. "Getting as many people as possible working on it was the best way."

Getting the word out

Above all, he told anyone who would listen, particularly the media, that Upper Darby had an enormous drug problem. And a gun problem, and a robbery problem, and on and on. That had not always been the case. Not too many town fathers wanted to give Fourth of July speeches that began with, "As soon as the crack deals have concluded . . ."

Under the former regime, direct contact with reporters of any kind, especially broadcast news, was virtually unheard of. But using the media to spread his message -- partnering with them, in effect -- was and is, also vintage Mike Chitwood. There were many times when that approach - in Philadelphia, in Portland, even in Upper Darby - did not go over at all well with his superiors, or with many of his peers. But Chitwood knew the degree of the problem he had and he also realized that the media could reach far more people that he could. His publicity blitz reached a peak when he had a batch of T-Shirts printed and sold as fund-raisers. They read: Not in my town, Scum-bag. 

Every fight wasn't a clear win, of course. When a young woman gave birth to a baby in secret and the baby died almost immediately under suspicious circumstances, and that young woman happened to be from a prominent Drexel Hill family, Chitwood clashed with almost everybody. He felt he was representing the infant who had died under apparently wrongful conditions, so he arrested the mother and explained it at a news conference. The County District Attorney's office saw his approach as harsh, to say the least, considering the mother's mental and emotional condition, not to mention her connections. That fight became very public and resulted in some highly strained relations.

Bars, or what Chitwood refers to as nuisance bars, have been a problem from the beginning.  Upper Darby has its share. "You can't close them down," Chitwood explains displaying obvious annoyance, as he parks directly in front of one of the worst, near 69th Street, making sure that they know that he knows. It looks like an entrance-to-hell dive bar that only Hollywood could conjure up; but the business is brisk, and people keep pouring in from the summer darkness of a street that is vividly alive on a Friday night.

 "We get cooperation from everybody and the community does its, part, too," he says, gesturing in the direction of the small saloon. "The state police, liquor enforcement agents, everybody. But, as soon as the license is questioned and it gets to the state Liquor Control Board, it dies there. Why? The challenge can go on for years and they can keep operating; just get away with it. The owner has a right to make a living, that's all you hear. This is the place that's suing me now. Does he have a right to make a living in a place where there's been killings and beatings and drugs? But the place is still open. That's not fair to the families who have to live in this neighborhood."

Drug activity in the nuisance bars continues to be a big problem, so the police use undercover officers from inside and outside Upper Darby. In the recent past, drug dealers were getting out of jail too easily. That sent Chitwood to the courthouse in Media where he lobbied judges for high bails and stiff sentences. The worst neighborhoods in the township were attracting the most violent dealers. The police then formed their own Tactical Narcotics Team to become even more aggressive in conducting raids and arrests.

Captain George Rhoades is in charge of Upper Darby's drug taskforce. He also saw the war on drugs as a quality of life issue. "If we remove the people hanging on the corner at 8 p.m., then we prevent the drive-by shooting at 9 p.m.," Rhoades explained.

Moving against the dealers

The police also urged the township to begin closing down abandoned properties much more quickly. The police next worked with representatives from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to discontinue subsidies to tenants who were dealing or buying drugs. That was a big challenge because drugs in a community can form a complex web. Narcotics are often the main source of neighborhood income. Landlords might actually prefer tenants who are known drug dealers - they pay on time and in cash. They also enforce their own twisted version of the law.

That can be open competition for the police. Chitwood approached HUD about working with landlords to obtain better, non-drug dealing tenants.

During those first two years, from 2005 through 2007, the police investigated 237 drug cases and made 355 arrests. Over 350 of those arrested went to Delaware County's prison, at some point. That was a lot of drug activity for 7.6 square miles of township. Last year, the police handled 297 drug investigations; the problem has not gone away. In one sense it has, however, gone inside.

"We arrested a guy last Friday," Chitwood says, "Nice apartment in a nice part of Upper Darby. He was selling drugs out of there and he had a baby with him. Dumb guy."

Richard Daubenberger is a busy defense attorney in the County. He saw the impact that the new aggressiveness in Upper Darby was having among clients and potential clients. "I've had drug dealers sit in my office and say to me that they don't go to Upper Darby to sell drugs anymore," Daubenberger said, "They tell me, 'Chitwood's crazy. They're always out to get you there.'"

Business leader Hulsey shared that sentiment. "It's turned around 100 percent," he said. "There are no more drug houses on Clinton Avenue. It's been mopped up. There's a change in attitude."

Testimonials are nice and Chitwood has heard his share, but he realizes that "change" can be difficult to obtain and illusory, at best.

"Every kind of drug is still here," Chitwood says. "One difference is that the dealers know they're being watched now. We monitor things constantly. There has to be this awareness that the police are around, that they're involved."

Drug cases are very hard to make. Possessing a small amount of marijuana, for example, is becoming ever closer to carrying the same severity as a traffic ticket, even in a city like Philadelphia. Many drug offenses involve other crimes, too. It's not unusual for a minor drug charge to be waived, in order to get a plea-bargained guilty plea on a weapons or robbery offense. That can be frustrating, but it also saves the county and, ultimately, the taxpayer's money. As Chitwood and every other cop in the United States realizes, all they can do is arrest people, then the court system takes over.

"I've seen people walk out of court in Philadelphia on a drug charge after posting $35 cash bail," Chitwood recalls. "They go right out and do the same thing that afternoon. Here, though, you might get hit with a $50,000 bail. That's when you see a defendant standing there, putting his hands in his pockets, pulling them inside-out, like the $50,000 is in there somewhere."      

It's late at night by now, and Chitwood has been at it since 4 a.m., just a normal day for him. The more Upper Darby resembles that imaginary 13th District, the busier the police are, and the more Chitwood is in his element. He knows that Philadelphia isn't going anywhere and the roads will keep bringing the bad guys into his town.

"What's next?" he's asked.

"Oh, the bikers are coming back," he answers off-handedly, dealing strictly with the moment, as always. "We're starting to see a few of them now, Pagans and Warlocks, the occasional Hell's Angel. They were always in Upper Darby. I think they're trying to take over a couple bars. But we won't let them wear their colors. They hate that. Let's take a ride over there; I'll show you where it's happening."

Chitwood rides off, still patrolling the 13th District.



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