'Murder and Mayhem' Decline on Streets of Philadelphia

Philadelphia Mayor and Police Commissioner Team Up to Cut Crime and 'Take Back' the City


Aug. 21, 2008—

Three hundred and ninety-two people were murdered on the streets of Philadelphia last year. So ever since Charles Ramsey was sworn in as the city's police commissioner in January, he and Mayor Michael Nutter have been on a mission to dramatically cut the city's murder and crime rate.

Improved surveillance cameras on the streets are part of the strategy. There are 31 cameras scanning Philadelphia streets so far, with a warning to law-abiding citizens and criminals alike: be ready for your close-up.

"What it does is it gives you a record," Ramsey told ABC News' "Nightline" recently. "You may not see it live when it's going on, because the more cameras you get, it's difficult to monitor them all at one time, but it does give you a record of what took place."

The city of about 1.4 million people will eventually have 250 cameras, intended to assist police officers like Michael Vargas and Dominic Mathis, who patrol some of the toughest neighborhoods.

"I know of a couple robbery jobs that, based on the information from the camera, the person was apprehended fairly quickly," Mathis said.

The cameras are sometimes more reactive than proactive. In the case of a recent shooting on South Salford Street, police made one arrest right away and two more in the following weeks, but one suspect remains at large. It's the kind of action Nutter promised the people of Philadelphia when he was elected mayor last year.

Nutter, 51, took office with all the pomp and ceremony befitting the leader of the nation's sixth largest city. The native Philadelphian won in a landslide, took the oath of office and made a bold declaration.

"This is our city and we're taking it back," he said in his inauguration speech. "Ten years ago, New York City had over 2,200 homicides. But last year they had 494. There is no reason in the world why this city should not set its sights on attaining those kinds of goals over the next three to five years, that we will cut our homicide rate by 30 [percent] to 50 percent. No reason at all. None."

Last year's 392 murders were down 3.4 percent from 406 in 2006.

Nutter is a Wharton Business School graduate who served nearly 15 years in the Philadelphia City Council before running for the top spot in the city he loves. Smart and affable, he's a baby boomer who's distinctly "old school" -- he delighted guests at his inaugural party by taking the stage for a performance of the song "Rapper's Delight." But popular culture and popularity aside, he's strictly business when it comes to running the city.

No More 'Murder and Mayhem'

"The small minority of folks who are running around creating murder and mayhem and stuff, I'm putting them on notice today," Nutter said. "We know who you are, we know what you're up to -- I'm not messing around."

Nutter predicts that the crime rate in so-called "Killadelphia" will decline drastically "over some extended period of time." During an interview with "Nightline" in his office just after the inauguration, the new mayor said, "Look, public service is not for the faint of heart. And if you don't set goals, if you don't set the standards high, you'll never know what it is that you can do. But again, I'm not doing this by myself."

Ramsey, Nutter's partner against crime, previously held the job of police chief in Washington, D.C., where he was appointed in 1998. The crime rate was down 40 percent by the time he left in 2006, after which he came out of retirement to take the job in Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Police Department has approximately 6,700 sworn police officers.

In addition to the surveillance cameras, it's important to employ policing strategies "as old as the hills," such as more beat cops, said Ramsey, 51, who was born in Chicago.

Nutter agreed. "It's not all about high tech. I love high tech, but if you do the fundamentals, if you just block and tackle and don't drop the ball, you'd be surprised how many points you can score."

But another part of their plan seemed likely to anger some residents -- officers would be allowed to stop, question and frisk citizens who looked "reasonably" suspicious.

"If done right, if done well, it is a legitimate crime-fighting strategy because you are setting the public basically on notice that we are coming after illegal weapons wherever they may be," Nutter said.

Nutter wants to change the mindset of people in his city, emphasizing that crime is "not cool, it's not hip, it's not the way things are and it's not the way things are gonna be. Not in Philadelphia."

Shortly after Nutter and Ramsey began their terms, there were five homicides in one night. And in a separate incident, veteran police officer Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski was shot to death. During a subsequent arrest, police were caught on tape beating suspects. Nutter and Ramsey did not hesitate to punish their own.

"Working with Ramsey and his top staff, we made a very direct and quick and appropriate decision that established that we have standards," Nutter said.

Ramsey said, "Of the 18 officers, eight received some sort of discipline. The other 10 were exonerated. Four were terminated. Three received suspensions and one -- a supervisor who was at the scene and who in my opinion should have taken control right away and probably would have stopped this entire incident -- he was demoted."

Shootings, Violent Crime in Decline

The mayor's moral outrage cut both ways. When police arrested a suspect in the police officer's killing, Nutter went to the police station to express his anger to the suspect.

"That night, quite frankly, in that police area I was not the mayor," he said. "I was Michael Nutter, citizen of the city, an African-American speaking to another young African-American, that I was disappointed in his behavior. That kind of activity is unacceptable here in Philadelphia and I wanted him to hear it directly from me. It was personal. You were involved in the assassination of one of our police officers. And I took it personal and I wanted to deliver a personal message."

Despite the challenges, the plan seems to be working. Since the start of the new administration, homicides are down about 20 percent, and in the nine worst districts, they're down 41 percent.

"Those nine districts drove our crime last year," Ramsey said. "They accounted for 64 percent of our murders and 75 percent of our shootings. So we're having an impact. The number of shooting victims are down. The amount of violent crime is down and arrests are up."

Perhaps surprisingly, even though arrests and police stops are up, complaints against the department have held steady since this time last year.

"You know what? It helps protect the people that need to be protected," community activist Rick Ford said. "And I don't have a problem with it. What I don't want to see is racial profiling. In terms of don't just stop young African-American men. You're not going to go in a Caucasian neighborhood and stop those people for whatever reason."

Ramsey, who's African-American, said, "It's not racial profiling. You have pockets of crime where people are economically -- they tend to be more disadvantaged than others. That tends to be where you have a high concentration of crime. It's based solely on crime, nothing else."

"We tend to have more people come up to us on bikes than a patrol car," police Officer Angel Ortiz said as he paused astride his bicycle at a Philadelphia corner. "There's more of one-on-one communication between the community and us."

Ramsey also put 248 more cops on patrol -- in cars and on bikes -- as a way of getting them to know the neighborhoods they protect.

Philadelphia is about 47 percent white and 46 percent African-American, according to the Census Bureau's most recent estimates.

Under the previous administration, police officers Mathis and Vargas were part of an elite squad that put on a show of force in crime-riddled neighborhoods. Ramsey disbanded the unit and now the two are back on patrol, with a strong instinct for what looks suspicious.

On the evening "Nightline" rode with the officers, a man they pulled over for a traffic stop gave them what they thought was a fake name.

After a bit of detective work, they found his real name -- and picture -- on their cruiser's new onboard computer. He had a long record for gun, stolen vehicle and drug charges. But on this night, there was no reason to arrest him so he was given a traffic ticket and sent on his way.

"We emphasize to the officers, it's not just making stops," Ramsey said. "Who are the people causing harm? Who are the ones we know carry guns? Who are the gang bangers? Who are the people out here causing harm? Those are the ones we want to focus on."

The long, hot days of summer, typically the worst months for violent crime, are almost over, and Nutter and Ramsey's success is holding.

"Everyone gets a little bit of a break early on," Nutter said. "But that only lasts for so long. You have to deliver. That's the business that we're in."