Police operation targets high-crime districts
By Troy Graham
Inquirer Staff Writer
Philadelphia Police Capt. Daniel Castro stood at roll call, pointing out sections of the 24th and 25th Districts. These are two of the city’s most violent pockets, and on this Friday night, officers would hit them hard.
On the table in front of him were booklets of criminal intelligence and fliers depicting a handful of the 375 people wanted for arrest in those sectors.
The officers who normally patrol these streets were present. So were deputy U.S. marshals, probation and parole authorities, warrant officers – an alphabet soup of local, state, and federal agencies.
They all were there as part of Operation Pressure Point, a police-led effort to tamp down violence by targeting the most troubled neighborhoods at the most dangerous times – Friday and Saturday nights.
“It puts a lot of pressure on them. That’s why they call it Pressure Point,” Sgt. Joe Serrano said at roll call. “It’s good when all these locations are being hit at the same time. There’s a lot of uniforms out there.”
From about 8 p.m until 3 a.m., this huge law enforcement contingent would attempt to serve arrest warrants on the districts’ most-wanted fugitives, disrupt the busiest drug corners, and raid the area’s worst nuisance bars.
Even before the roll call, a team of FBI and narcotics agents, working as part of Pressure Point, made a large drug bust.
“Don’t go out there and just clear corners,” Castro instructed. “Get the intelligence, report it back.”
The two districts, which share a modern headquarters just off Erie Avenue, patrol parts of Port Richmond, Kensington, Hunting Park, and North Philadelphia.
The dangers are ever-present. Just outside the assembly room is a mural honoring Stephen Liczbinski and Timothy Simpson, sergeants from the 24th District killed in the line of duty in 2008.
Two weeks before the Friday night shift, an officer deployed on Pressure Point duty from an adjoining district was shot and wounded outside a North Philadelphia bar.
“I’d rather you guys lose a prisoner or don’t chase somebody than get hurt,” Castro said, wrapping up his comments at roll call. “I want everyone to go home tonight.”
‘The bar is shutting down’
Launched in April and planned to stretch through October, Operation Pressure Point has been credited with a drop in weekend homicides and shootings. More than half of the city’s violent crime occurs between Friday night and Sunday night, police say.
“These weekends have really been difficult periods for us,” said Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel. “At this point, we’re headed in the right direction.”
In April, weekend homicides were cut in half compared to 2008, and nonfatal shootings were slashed by 20 percent.
Overall, homicides for the year are down 10 percent from last year – 148 compared to 165, as of yesterday – and shootings are off slightly.
Some version of Pressure Point has been operating every weekend in 12 districts identified as having the most crime. Those districts have extra officers at the peak hours.
The other agencies that have partnered with police rotate around the city.
“That collaboration, we believe, is an effective tool to address the violence,” Bethel said.
One tactic has been to team up with the Department of Licenses and Inspections to target bars with a history of problems.
The importance of that strategy was underscored last month, when men with guns poured out of a North Philadelphia bar after shots were fired outside. Officer Ashley Hoggard was hit in the shoulder while responding.
A week later, a patron who had been ejected from a Hunting Park bar returned with a gun and opened fire, killing one man and injuring six others.
“You can’t allow these situations where they’re overcrowding these bars, underage drinking, people carrying guns,” Bethel said.
On June 26, L&I and police raided five bars in the 24th and 25th Districts, checking identification of patrons, searching for weapons, and making sure the bars were in compliance.
At El Pinto Fino, a corner bar at Rorer Street and Indiana Avenue in Kensington, they found the place jammed. One man there was arrested for a parole violation.
The bar was cited for numerous code violations, before an L&I officer announced, “The bar is shutting down, OK.”
He gave instructions in Spanish that everyone had to leave as grumbling patrons streamed into the night.
A drug super center
A caravan of police vehicles turned onto the 3300 block of Mutter Street in North Philadelphia, a block-long, one-way street that hosts one of the area’s most bustling drug markets.
On this night, a man saw the police coming and ran through a house in the middle of the block. With officers chasing, he went to the second floor and dropped out the window.
Meanwhile, Officer Ed Sawicki spotted a young white man slinking down the block – an obvious customer.
“You! Come here,” he ordered. He asked the man to explain what he was doing on the block. Immediately chastened, the man pulled out a $20 bill.
“I was copping,” he said, slang for buying drugs. He said his girlfriend was waiting at a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken for him to return with two bags of heroin, but he hadn’t bought anything before police arrived.
Sawicki rifled the man’s pockets and found his “works” – a plastic-wrapped syringe – but no drugs. Later, the man was handcuffed by another officer and marched the length of Mutter Street as a warning.
Sawicki then pointed out the many discarded “bundle bags,” plastic bags that once contained smaller packets of drugs, littering the street. He noted a smaller bag stamped with the Playboy bunny logo – the brand of that block’s product.
“This is like a Wal-Mart block: weed, heroin, crack, coke,” Sawicki said.
The man who jumped out the window was corralled and brought out of an alley, limping and handcuffed. If he’d had drugs on him, he had managed to discard them. The woman whose house he bolted through refused to press charges.
But, for a while, the Wal-Mart block was closed down.
Cleaning up the city
The numbers for the weekend’s operation were encouraging – 70 arrests, four guns seized, and $61,000 in drugs and cash confiscated.
There were no high-profile arrests, but no reports of major crime in the districts either, Castro said. He credited that to the “omnipresence” of law enforcement during Pressure Point.
The next morning, police were back out in the districts, working on a community cleanup project.
“We try to clean the neighborhood, if you will,” of criminals, Castro said. “And tomorrow we’re here to do the second part, cleaning up the community.”
Police leaders say that efforts to stop crime and build relations in the community are just as important as headline-grabbing efforts.
“Unfortunately, we’re not able to count the things that don’t happen,” Bethel said. “What we’re preventing.”
Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 215-854-2730 or [email protected]