A new but possibly terrible idea to fight crime and fix Philly
Stop the violence.
That’s been Milton Street’s hallmark phrase in the mayoral race. Say what you will about the man himself — and his absence of written policy proposals — he has attended umpteen mayoral forums and been vocally consistent about one thing he’d do as mayor:
Implement a new municipal department of police-community liaisons.
Street says that each police district would have a separate unit. The community leaders would serve as quasi-diplomats between the police and district residents, ensuring that constitutional treatment is the standard. While they would assist police in tackling hot crime areas, they would not themselves be law enforcers.
Rather, a larger part of their job would identifying at-risk individuals and offering them alternative options to crime.
“Whether we want to accept it or not, some of the guys standing on the corner selling drugs are supporting their families,” Street told AL DÍA. “It’s the only income they have. So you can’t take that from them without replacing it with something else.”
If the department could secure partnerships with the nonprofit, public, and private sectors, Street is optimistic that this could create a crime-to-career pipeline that would drastically improve the situation in Philadelphia neighborhoods.
Street says it would cost at least $45 million dollars to start a pilot program. But if it saved 1,000 people from incarceration in one year, the program would pay for itself in terms of long-term relief on the tax base; incarceration costs per inmate are around $42,400 annually.
According to a PEW study, crime is second after education as the issue that most concerns Philadelphians. In a milieu that suggests increasing prison populations, Street feels he has found a solution that is both “revolution and evolution.”
A new idea for this race, not everyone thinks this idea of a beefed-up Town Watch program that could ease the overcrowded prison system is a good one.
An independent criticism
Although not formally a candidate, possible independent contender Sam Katz weighed in on Street’s idea with some critical velocity.
“$45 million annually would equate to something like 750 employees at a gross compensation cost of $60,000 per year,” Katz said. “The health care and pension costs would add to this funding. So first off, that dollar amount is a non-starter.”
Equally concerning to Katz, who has run for the mayor’s office three times as an independent candidate, is where this model comes from. What other cities have a similar department? How do we know this will be an effective way to quell crime?
“Seems to me, that like much of Milton has to say, this is shooting from the hip,” Katz said. “There would be no circumstances in which a smart mayor would commit to anything of this consequence without a pilot program at a much reduced cost, a fraction of what you have quoted.”
As for saving correction costs, Katz says that may well prove to be the case. But the cost-benefit analysis — a huge amount of budget resources and no evidence underpinning what the project will do — leads him to be skeptical.
Unrealistic, with grains of truth
Even if the $45 million were a feasible figure, Philadelphia still lives in a world of monetary constraints. That money doesn’t materialize out of thin air, and it has create guaranteed cost savings. Long-term conjectures are a hard sell. So what would be the political will behind the idea?
“Crime is very costly for residents, communities, and city government,” Lee Huang, senior vice president at EConsult Solutions, said. “The perception of crime is also costly for real estate markets.”
The real estate market works like any other supply-and-demand market. Because of the Actual Value Initiative (AVI), which went into effect for the 2014 tax year, properties are now assessed by their market value.
So here’s the economic cost-benefit analysis for a program of this scope: If it contributes to a perception of safety; if it results in fewer crimes in our neighborhoods and our commercial corridors; if it lowers the rate of death, injury, and lost productivity through incarceration and reentry; if you have a program that minimizes all these things, it’s a positive thing from an economic perspective.
There could be a payback in the form of new property investment, but the magnitude of that Huang says is unclear.
A mayor for Street's plan
Since forums offer scarce chances for candidates to critically discuss each other’s ideas, AL DÍA asked them if they consider Street’s plan should they be elected mayor.
“There's no question that community leaders are an integral part of any police-community strategy,” said Lauren Hitt, the spokeswoman for former City Councilman Jim Kenney. “And any productive idea about how to end the violence and bring our city together is worth considering.”
Lynne Abraham didn’t say yes or no, but rather that she’d like to see more body cameras and “special training in the protocols of conduct in police-community relations.”
As a broad consideration, Doug Oliver said the idea had merit, calling it “a great example of creating a long-term solution instead of responding to a crisis when the problem has already presented itself.”
Judge Nelson Diaz disagreed. To him, the idea was a cop-out for cops. A community member liaison just puts more distance between positive police-community interaction. Moreover, there’s more room for scandal and corruption. Diaz’s proposal for community policing emphasizes more foot-patrols, as well as police sub-stations within troubled neighborhoods.
“You want to have a police department with people who are involved with a community,” he said. “I was in Japan for six months. The police there knew every single individual within their beat, and had a relationship with them. The DOJ report emphasized the need for stronger community relations, and that’s how it’s done.”
Sen. Anthony Williams would not comment.
Big picture justice
No single program is a panacea for crime in the city. But there's no denying that T. Milton Street is a man who cares deeply about Philadelphia and stopping crime in the communities that suffer most from it.
Street aside, the five mayoral candidates agree on a number of niche issues that might add up to something more definitive.
In an ideal Philadelphia, they would all end stop-and-frisk policing. Get body cameras for police officers. Support existing social services for incarcerated persons. They also all agree on teaching more police sensitivity, reducing gun violence through focused deterrence, and implementing the Department of Justice’s 91 recommendations for the PPD.
Some of the candidates fought for crime-reducing reform in their careers as well. See Jim Kenney’s support to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, as well as Anthony Williams’ and Lynne Abraham’s lobbying efforts for gun crime prevention programs.
But anyway, here’s an unofficial list of new ideas, of what distinguishes these candidates’ current policies about policing, prisons, and justice from their competitors. With only a week left to vote, AL DÍA encourages you to give their fuller policies on crime and public safety a quick read.
Lynne Abraham, the former city District Attorney, proposes to implement a merit selection system for judges, and rid the city of its broken political appointment process. She also proposes to implement a municipal “Office for Family Violence” that would deal especially with women and children.
Nelson Diaz pitches taking community policing to the next step by embedding small substations directly in the troubled neighborhoods. He also proposes to fund more police-community activities through the Police Athletics League (PAL) in an effort to build much-needed positive relationships with the police.
Jim Kenney has a three-fold rehabilitory idea unique to his public safety policy — more educational programs to prisons, segue into a better city-funded reentry program, and then better expungement services for these returning citizens. He is also the only candidate to propose implementing ShotSpotter technology in Philadelphia.
Doug Oliver offers up a community review system that would deliver “actionable feedback” to police leadership and performance.
And chief among Anthony Williams’ police-community relations reforms is his proposal to fire Philadelphia police officers who use hate speech. Williams has also promised to reform the bail system, which costs $23,000 in taxpayer dollars to hold an inmate for 200 days just because they can’t afford to post bail.