Crime is a problem in every city in America.
In Camden, New Jersey, the city’s economic woes have forced the city government to consider folding what’s left of its police force into a county department. Residents there are concerned about their safety, and criminals seem to conduct themselves with increasing impunity. It’s even worse in Chicago, where recently 19 people were shot in one weekend; 13 of them within just a few hours.
Then there’s Philadelphia, a city seemingly caught in a kind of purgatory between hell, where it’s as bad as it could get — and an urban heaven, where violent crime has been successfully and significantly reduced. Repeat offenders cycle through the city’s justice system; the recidivism rate is high, and employment opportunities aren’t plentiful. Conditions seem to invite a return to prison and for many, that’s just what happens — usually within two years of release.
This week, District Attorney R. Seth Williams spoke to the Tribune about his views regarding what drives violent crime in Philadelphia and what can and should done to prevent it. Since he became the first African-American district attorney in Philadelphia, his office successfully prosecuted and convicted Monsignor William Lynn, the first Catholic Church official to go down for allowing known child sexual predators to remain serving as priests. His assistant district attorneys built a case against former police officer Frank Tepper and convicted him of murder. They’re building cases against other police officers who dishonored their badges selling drugs, for manslaughter and other criminal acts. Most significantly, the highest profile criminals in the city right now are Rafael Jones and Chancier McFarland, both charged with murder in the slaying of police officer Moses Walker Jr. Both have preliminary hearings coming up next Wednesday.
Williams spoke at length about how to better prosecute the city’s worst criminals, but also how to save those who genuinely want to become a part of building up the community. He has no illusions about the depth and complexities of the problem and the limited resources at his disposal with which to do the job.
“I like to compare our prosecutors to the 300 Spartans,” he said. “You could argue that the odds are stacked against us, and even that we’re outnumbered. But eventually the Greeks beat the Persians — in the end, they won and so will we. The reality is I ran on a platform of reforming this office, which had the lowest conviction rate of the forty largest urban areas. At one time 59 percent of the felony cases were being thrown out at the preliminary hearing. It wasn’t that the ADAs weren’t working hard enough, but that the system was broken — and some people were angry just making those statistics public. Now, economically speaking, the budget for this office is less than when Lynn was district attorney. At her zenith, the were about 330 ADAs; we’re down to 290 now; so we have a smaller budget and fewer ADAs, but we’ve dramatically increased our efficiency, especially in how we hold cases for prosecution. We revamped the Charging Unit and tripled the number of ADAs that review cases. It’s not just enough to arrest someone; the police can make an arrest, but unless there’s a solid case against a defendant that case is going to get thrown out. We get our legitimacy from the community — if they know we’re fair — and for a long time this office was seen as an oppressor and not a protector. People need to know that we’re not going to just prosecute Pookie and Man-Man for selling weed or crack. If you’re a police officer and you do something wrong, or a Catholic Church official that knows about pedophile priests and you do nothing, or a Dr. Gosnell allegedly murdering eight people — you’re going to be charged. There’s the same standard of justice from one end of Germantown Avenue to the other end.”
In terms of what produces violent criminals and drives crime in Philadelphia, Williams said a number of different factors are at work, but he was quick to point out what he believes is the single most important contributing factor.
“It’s a connection of things — which is why we have to have a holistic approach. But most problematic is the high school dropout rate,” he said. “It’s close to 50 percent. When I talk to kids in schools or to people at community meetings and I ask that question they’ll raise their hands and say the criminals are Black. Yes, a disproportionate number of our criminals and victims are Black and brown people — but the number one commonality for criminals in this city is they didn’t finish high school. That’s across all demographics. My father used to take me to Sulzberger Junior High with him at night sometimes to play checkers. I never knew why, but I later found out that he did that on the parent-teacher night. He took me along because no parents were coming to meet him; but they would come on report card night to cuss him out. That’s the next big factor: a lack of parental involvement. When it comes to crime in this city, it’s a combination of economic development, education, public health and public safety.”
Williams said the number one mental health provider in the United States is the Los Angeles County Prison System. The second largest is the New York City prison system and the third is Cook County in Chicago. The nation used to provide more mental health services in its communities, he said, and then budget cuts under President Ronald Reagan shut down much of it.
“Take drug addicts — we have to treat them as addicts, not necessarily as criminals, but to get them help for their illness,” he said. “To make the city safer it’s not just about going after drug dealers. For every dealer there are about 50 or 60 addicts. To reduce crime, we have to keep kids in school and reduce truancy. Drug addicts need treatment; we have to improve literacy. Now that might not sound as sexy as more jail time, but the reality is that we have seven times the number of people in Pennsylvania’s prisons today than 30 years ago — but we’re not seven times safer. We have to have the right people in prison.”
Williams said he would like to see more diversionary programs, particularly for non-violent criminals and juveniles. You don’t want to put someone in prison for a small amount of marijuana, he said. Why spend thousands of dollars prosecuting someone who had $10 worth of marijuana, he questioned, when the resources could be better spent.
The district attorney also spoke candidly about the recent murder of police officer Moses Walker Jr. Walker was laid to rest on Monday, a day after the second suspect in the case, Chancier McFarland, turned himself over to the FBI after having gotten as far south as Mobile, Alabama. The alleged shooter in the murder, Rafael Jones, was arrested a few days after Walker was slain on August 18. Questions were raised as to how Jones, a man with a significant criminal history, was not already behind bars for violating his probation.
“All of the people who have killed police officers over the last several years all began their criminal careers as truants,” Williams said. “The system isn’t perfect, but at the same time people want due process, they want and expect checks and balances. We can’t just have someone make an allegation and then lock them away. The police just can’t enter your home without a warrant and you have the right to face your accusers. We can’t just point the finger of blame in this or any other case and say, ‘Well, if this had happened, maybe Officer Walker would still be alive.’ We have to do more to ensure that violent criminals have to be dealt with expeditiously, but we also have to adhere to our laws. Part of what we’re doing is called GunStat.”
GunStat, Williams said, is a collaborative effort using crime analysis methods already employed by law enforcement. By targeting high violence areas, police and the district attorney’s office are able to identify who the violent criminals in a neighborhood are — and where they are.
“We work with the captains of a particular district to identify who certain offenders are and then build real cases against them, rather than waiting for them to shoot someone and then specially assign a case,” Williams said. “We have these individuals under surveillance, observe them and build a case from that.”