All-volunteer anti-crime effort in Philadelphia falters

June 08, 2008|By Erika Hayasaki | Erika Hayasaki,Los Angeles Times

PHILADELPHIA -- Wazier El remembers the excitement that day in October when nearly 10,000 men gathered in a stadium to send a message to drug dealers, gang members and gun-toting criminals: The violence must stop.

In a matter of days, the men vowed, they would patrol the streets of this city, where the homicide rate is among the highest in the nation.

But seven months later, many volunteers who once felt so full of hope have given up. The movement - "Call to Action: 10,000 Men: It's a New Day in Philadelphia" - has faced organizational and financial struggles. Frustrated with leadership, some volunteers have had second thoughts.

In the meantime, things in Philadelphia are not much better.

In May, police Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski was killed during a bank robbery. Two days later, a news helicopter captured more than a dozen white police officers kicking and using batons to hit three black shooting suspects. The Rev. Al Sharpton called the beating "worse than Rodney King."

The latest violence has exposed a split in Philadelphia.

In one letter to the editor, a newspaper reader wrote: "It seems that the Police Department has declared it's hunting season on young black men."

Another, however, expressed this point of view: "Here we go again. Punks are shooting up Philly as though it's the Wild West. And who gets the heat? The cops who catch up with some of these cowards."

Following the beating incident, Mayor Michael Nutter said there was no indication that it was racially motivated. But he did not excuse the officers involved.

"We are deeply disappointed in the actions that we witnessed on the videotape," Nutter said recently, adding that 19 officers identified in connection with the beating were put on desk duty. The internal affairs department and Philadelphia district attorney's office are investigating.

For El, 58, a carpenter who lost a son to Philadelphia's street violence two years ago, the mayor's expressions of concern are not enough. The city could have prevented such problems from escalating, he said, if it had worked closely with the 10,000 men who wanted to help.

Groups of volunteers had gone through safety training. El, who received a certification of completion on Jan. 26, was appointed as a squad leader. Then he heard from some men who had not been contacted by organizers. When El brought the issue up, those in charge blamed technical problems. So he pressed on, knocking on doors with about 30 other volunteers, handing out fliers asking others to join. Cold weather cut down patrols. Once-eager volunteers drifted away.

This month, El told organizers he, too, was quitting. "People don't want to see progress," El said. "I am fed up ... I see people dying in the community."

"The "Call to Action" headquarters is three miles from City Hall. It sat empty one recent Friday afternoon. Purple fliers, left over from promotions for the October gathering, papered the windows. No one picked up calls.

But leaders say the nonprofit program is moving forward. Several hundred men began patrolling the streets in April after a winter hiatus, said organizer Norm Bond.

"People are saying, `Well, guys, I don't see you on my block,'" Bond said. "Certainly we're not perfect and we would like to get some staff, full-time staff, and raise the funds. ... We haven't received a lot of assistance from the city. We need support."

Erika Hayasaki writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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